#5 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
Analysis of Kubrick’s 1980 horror film tends to devolve into pure symbology, and I find that type of analysis dull at best. I’ve seen breakdowns of the film that range from it being a comment on alcoholism, family breakdown, American history regarding Native Americans, and even the gold standard. These are about sussing out patterns that require either very isolated readings of certain elements or the use of outside factors like Stephen King’s novel in order to support. I prefer to view The Shining rather simply, as a horror film.
The things that some other people latch onto in order to try and explain the film are definitely in the film, but, to take perhaps the most ridiculous example, the idea that Stanley Kubrick made a film about a man trying to murder his family that is actually about the end of the gold standard in America is, shall we say, absurd. People have fun with this kind of analysis, but I have more fun enjoying a great chill.
It’s obvious from the moment we see Jack Torrence for the first time that he’s an unhappy man. His smile feels forced, his jokes feel unenthusiastic, and he seems to be hiding something. Through the first half hour, we get hints and stories of Jack’s alcoholism that he is recovering from, some violence he visited upon his small child, and a distance from his wife. Three years before the events of the film, Jack came home drunk to find Danny, his boy, messing with his work papers. In a fit of rage he pulled at Danny’s arm, dislocating it. Five months before the film, he swore off alcohol for good, refusing to take another drop. His wife, Wendy, implies that the sobriety stems from the violence against Danny, but it goes unremarked by anyone that there are two and a half years between that moment of violence and the moment Jack got on the wagon. The idea that the violence itself was what drove him to give up alcohol isn’t true. There are hints that Jack lost his job as a school teacher in Vermont roughly five months before, so it seems like the loss of his livelihood is actually what drove him dry.
Jack takes the job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in a remote corner of the mountains in Colorado. He relishes the idea of taking five months away from the pressures of the real world to focus on writing. While he hasn’t written anything yet, since he has no other job, he styles himself as one nonetheless. When they arrive to take possession of the Overlook, Danny meets with Mr. Hallorann who shares Danny’s psychic power called “shining” and giving explanation to the apocalyptic visions of the hotel Danny had seen earlier in the film.
Life in the Overlook has a dual effect on Jack. He expresses great love for the hotel itself and the isolation it offers him, but it’s obvious that something’s eating away at him from the inside. He tries to write, but Wendy keeps distracting him. The rest of the family finds way to fill their days by running through the large hedge maze and Danny rides his plastic tricycle through the halls. It’s here that the weirdness and supernatural begins to amp up with visions of dead girls and a naked woman who attack Danny, seduces Jack, and then repels him by becoming an old woman whose body is water decayed. Wendy doesn’t know what to believe, first blaming Jack for the violence against Danny before running to Jack for protection.
Jack’s losing it though. He sees a bartender and has some Jack Daniels in the Gold Room, the giant ballroom. He talks to the previous caretaker, Mr. Grady, who is dead and had killed his own whole family in the hotel ten years before. He’s also been writing nothing but “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” on a typewriter over an entire ream of paper. He’s primed for violence, and he takes an axe in pursuit of his family. Mr. Hollorann, though, is called to the Overlook by Danny’s shining before getting quickly dispatched by Jack. Danny outsmarts Jack by luring him into the maze in the middle of the winter night, getting him lost, and then exiting out. Jack then freezes to death and appears in a photograph from a party that happened almost sixty years before.
In terms of why this movie works so well in the terror department, I think it’s best to start with the Steadicam. The way Kubrick uses the smooth movement of the new invention creates a sense of unease. There’s something wrong about how the camera’s clear focus and steady passage through an environment that feels unnatural. Shots seem to go on for too long. Everything is too easy to see. And the grace of the camera around the sets feels just too perfect. We don’t see these kind of camera moves in the one major scene that’s set outside the Outlook, that in the Torrence home in Boulder, so it’s exclusive to the hotel, giving it an otherworldly feel.
The music itself is atonal and metronomic at times, creating another source of unease that permeates the film. From the opening of the film, we can just feel that something isn’t right with the place. We obviously can’t put our finger on it, but the filmmaking is telling us implicitly. On top of that is Mr. Ullman telling Jack about Mr. Grady’s murder and suicide from a decade before.
Another great source of terror is, well, the source of terror. This is a ghost movie where the ghosts don’t really do a whole lot. Lloyd, the bartender, gives Jack a drink of Tennessee whiskey (not bourbon, jeez, TOTALLY different). Whether that is actually liquor passes Jack’s lips isn’t something with a real explanation in the film, but it’s Jack’s belief that it is real that’s important. He feels refreshed taking that drink in a way that he hasn’t felt in five months. That effect on Jack is what drives him to become violent. He’s the source of terror. In a family unit, the father turns on the mother and child. It’s the destruction of what should be something naturally safe. The ghosts are dressings of terror. The source itself is the destruction of this family.
And the destruction of the family really began before the movie. Jack is obviously unhappy in his marriage and Wendy seems to have no idea. Maybe it’s the fact that Jack hasn’t had a drop of liquor in almost half a year. Maybe it’s because Wendy is both passive and kind of annoying in her need to appease her husband. Maybe it’s that Jack’s life is obviously not where he had planned it. Whatever it was that had driven Jack from his teaching job, it’s pretty obvious that it wasn’t something he wanted to happen (my guess is that he went to school drunk one too many times). His isolation with only his family heightened the contrast within him between his dreams, manifested in the idea of writing a book, and his reality, manifested in an endless stream of pages that all say the same thing in different arrangements. Unable to cope with his own failure, he takes it out on his family. Instead of seeing his family as support, he sees them purely as a burden.
Looking back through Kubrick’s other films up to this point, the breakdown of the family is a repeating motif. The Killing, Lolita, and Barry Lyndon all have strong examples of a family coming apart at the seams. For all three, there’s the introduction of a new element (a lover in the first, and a new father figure in the other two) that causes the breakdown of the tender bonds that had existed before. The Shining, of course, also shows the breakdown of a family unit, but there’s no literal manifestation of an outer element destroying the bonds in the form of something like a lover. It’s the ghosts that are that manifestation here, ghosts that may be figments of Jack’s imagination (though, then how does he get out of the food pantry, huh smart guy?). The ghosts are this destructive force that pulls the family apart. Perhaps the alcohol could be seen as the outer force as well (this fits with Jack’s violent backstory regarding his harm of Danny). Does Kubrick see the family as something incredibly fragile that could fall apart with just the slightest of strains? He was a family man himself, marrying Christine a short time after meeting her on the set of Paths of Glory and having a darling daughter who appeared as Dr. Floyd’s daughter in 2001. Was this perhaps a manifestation of his fear of losing his family? He was an intensely private man who guarded her personal life with great care. Did he fear losing his family if he introduced something new?
The Shining is first and foremost an exquisitely crafted horror film. From the camera work, to the geography of the hotel that never quite makes sense, to the performances, and finally to the music, the film creates an otherworldly feel that unnerves the audience, creating the perfect environment to strike terror. That terror is firmly rooted in something very relatable to an audience, the fear of losing family, and it works marvelously. It also could be about the gold standard, I guess.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4
Originally published here.