Movie Review – The Shining

The Shining (1980)
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

The Shining is usually the first Kubrick film a person sees as it is the most popular and one of the most accessible. It connects with people who like Stephen King (and don’t realize how much Kubrick made this his movie) and fans of horror in general. At some point, the picture became part of a quasi-fandom with Steven Spielberg recreating the Overlook Hotel in Ready Player One, inspiring a fake documentary called Room 237, and having a sequel in the form of the King novel and subsequent Mike Flanagan picture Doctor Sleep. It remains a powerfully affecting horror film that leans into its ambiguity to create an authentic atmosphere of resonant horror.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has taken a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a respite from the world nestled into the Colorado Rockies. He brings along his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and his young son Danny. Danny has a psychic connection to others, a fact noticed by the Overlook’s head cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) on his way out with the rest of the staff. He warns Danny that evil things happened a long time ago at the hotel and that if the boy needs his help, he should use his gift, his “shining” to reach out. A month into the stay and the cracks begin to show. The domestic issues silently floating between Jack and Wendy begin to dig in while the Overlook’s evil presence takes advantage of this fact. These people become fresh meat for the dead of the hotel to feast upon.

Throughout The Shining, there are passing comments made about dark events in American history. While driving to the Overlook, Wendy mentions the Donner Party, which leads to Jack explaining to Danny how they cannibalized each other to survive the winter. During a tour of the hotel, the manager mentions that it was built on a Native American burial ground and that graves had to be disturbed during construction. The interior of the building is adorned with Native American art, both traditional in style and colonists’ interpretations. The Overlook is haunted by the brutal killings by a father of his wife and children. At the same time, the place is meant to be a means to escape the outside world. 

Watching all of Kubrick’s films in order led me to see The Shining in a new way. There is a throughline of pessimism in all his work about humanity, societal institutions, and (in Barry Lyndon) the very nature of fate. In all these instances, people are both capable of free will but seemingly restrained by forces beyond their control. When the elevators open as Wendy Torrance tears through the Overlook, I believe Kubrick is revealing his thesis statement. We all live on a mountain of corpses and atrocities that we find ways to ignore every day of our lives. Kubrick does not allow Jack off the hook by placing the blame on the weight of history behind him. 

When being served by the spectral bartender Lloyd, Jack mutters a line about “white man’s burden,” a reference to a phrase popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem of the same name serves as an apologia for colonialism in the South Pacific. The date on the photograph at the end is “July 4th”, a day which overwhelming cultural significance yet seen in drastically different ways depending on which ethnic group you survey. In 2001 we saw humanity evolve forwards, transforming into the Star Child, a new luminous stage in existence. By the end of The Shining, we watch humanity devolve, becoming a stalking pathetic beast, language is lost, and ultimately perishing due to the elements. 

Kubrick employs several storytelling and filmmaking techniques to create a sense of uncanny throughout the movie. There is no reliable perspective in the story, with many events happening off-screen and relayed after the fact. We don’t see what happens to Danny in Room 237, and when Wendy comes to Jack, her frantic behavior implies that she’s seen something in the hotel. The very architecture of the Overlook was designed to be impossible, the camera taking us down a hallway, making a turn to reveal an adjoining hallway that makes individual rooms physically impossible. There is an emphasis on duality with characters gazing into mirrors and Jack even speaking to one when he sits at the ballroom bar. That air of doubles is brought up when Jack is in the men’s room with waiter Delbert Grady, a spirit, who shares a surname with Charles Grady, the caretaker in 1970 who killed his family. This continues with the twin girls, the woman in 237 who has two forms, the hedge maze being both full-size & a miniature, and finally the idea of two Jack Torrances as seen in the photo in the final scene. Kubrick leaves us to ponder what the nature of Jack’s existence truly is, and like Barry Lyndon, it appears he was fated to take part in this violence & horror his entire life.

The Shining is a masterwork of horror and further development of the themes and philosophy Kubrick had been working on through his career. This propelled his vision to a broader audience over time, providing an entry point to his greater body of work. I used to say The Shining was my favorite Kubrick movie, and it is excellent, influencing one of my favorite contemporary directors Ari Aster. Watch this and Midsommar back to back and think you will see some visual similarities. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to appreciate more muted things like Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. The Shining will always be my go-to introduction to a new person who wants to get into the director.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review – The Shining”

  1. What an eloquent review. The Shining had many ambiguities to it, and to be able to bring out a product’s essence into its review is an art in itself!

  2. Pingback: July 2020 Digest

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