Shining, The (United States, 1980)

February 18, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Shining, The Poster

The Shining is a curious motion picture. On the one hand, as a ghost story and adaptation of the Stephen King novel, it's largely a failure. On the other hand, as an example of directorial bravura and as a study of madness and the unreliable narrator, it's a brilliant success. With its intensely claustrophobic atmosphere and suffocating sense of personality disintegration, The Shining is as unsettling as anything (except perhaps A Clockwork Orange) Stanley Kubrick made during his distinguished career. Yet the film has its share of pitfalls, not the least of which is the general incoherence of certain narrative elements. Because Kubrick elected not to integrate the supernatural aspects into the story in as concrete a manner as King did in his book, their presence is confusing and at times poorly realized. And Jack Nicholson's hammy performance as lead character Jack Torrance at times tips the scales toward self-parody.

What saves The Shining and, in fact, makes it compulsively watchable, is the direction. This is an instance of a mediocre screenplay being elevated by the stewardship of a master filmmaker. Perhaps only a handful of directors could milk as much from The Shining as Kubrick does, and many less talented individuals might have turned out a wretched final product from the same base ingredients. Those wondering why Kubrick is so revered need only watch The Shining to understand. In many ways, this is a more powerful example of his skills than his revered masterpieces (including 2001 and Dr. Strangelove).

The Shining is a haunted house story. Jack Torrence arrives at a secluded, five-star Colorado hotel with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), in tow. He has taken a job as the hotel's caretaker during the winter off-season so he can concentrate on his writing. When we first encounter Jack, his personality seems borderline and we soon learn that he's a recovering alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in five months. Wendy is the kind of meek wife who follows her husband's lead and never makes waves. Danny has a disconcerting habit of conversing with himself. Is this a case of interacting with an imaginary friend or is "Tony" (a boy "living in [his] mouth") a manifestation of psychic powers? Once the hotel is empty of everyone except Jack and his family, strange things start happening. Both Jack and Danny have visions. Wendy becomes concerned that her husband is losing his mind. With a winter storm howling outside, the spacious hotel becomes a prison. And the weirdness and danger escalate as Jack slips over the edge from sanity to madness.

Kubrick never answers the questions about whether Jack's ghoulish visions are real or fabrications of his increasingly warped imagination. It's equally uncertain whether similar images seen by Danny are legitimate. King would have us believe that the hotel is haunted. Kubrick is less definitive in the interpretations he offers. However, if we accept that Wendy is stable, there are indications based on things she sees as the movie climaxes that all of the horror is not in Jack's mind.

Nicholson's centerpiece performance goes from good to over-the-top. During The Shining's early scenes, the actor brings an edge to his character that hints at a disturbed mind. However, as Jack's grip on sanity loosens and eventually breaks, Nicholson starts chewing on the scenery (as is at times his wont). We're seeing Jack being Jack. There's no real difference between this portrayal and the one Nicholson would turn in nine years later as The Joker. There's no debating that it's entertaining to watch Nicholson turned loose with an ax and a penchant for imitating Ed McMahon, but the performer's broad and campy interpretation of Torrance effectively destroys the character, transforming him into a caricature.

There are problems with the other two leads as well. Danny Lloyd, whose entire acting career would comprise two appearances (this one and a part in the TV mini-series based on G. Gordon Liddy's memoirs), is unremarkable, recalling another Lloyd who would have a prominent role some 19 years later. It's not an abysmal performance but since the character is so crucial to the story, Lloyd's limitations are keenly felt. Meanwhile, while Shelley Duvall provides a sympathetic Wendy, the performance is so low-key that the character often blends in with the scenery. The only actor with a real presence is Scatman Crothers as the hotel's chef, and he's only in a handful of scenes.

The real star of The Shining is Kubrick's direction. The combination of unimpeachable set design, perfect shot selection, long tracking shots, and an impeccable score (comprised primarily of a selection of classical pieces) creates an atmosphere in which suspense and dread ferment. By the end of the film, every inch of the hotel hints at something sinister and every frame is infused with a sense of the macabre. The final chase through the snowy hedge labyrinth, with its painstaking shot selection, remains one of most suspenseful and intense sequences in any horror movie from this era. There's nothing in any Friday the 13th that comes close to this.

Much of The Shining is presented from Jack's point-of-view, and it becomes apparent that Kubrick wants us to become mired in the maelstrom of his disintegrating sanity. It has been pointed out that there's a mirror in every scene in which Jack sees a ghost, causing us to wonder whether the spirits are reflections of a tortured psyche. And what about the final, infamous shot of Jack trapped in a 1920s photograph? One could argue that the Twilight Zone image is deliberately ambiguous and misleading, but it's a good conversation starter.

While Kubrick's perfectionist fingerprints are all over The Shining, there's also a flavor of David Lynch to be found in some of the strange, supernatural sequences. It was reported that one of the films Kubrick showed to the cast and crew was Eraserhead, so this connection would seem to be more than coincidence. Stephen King was ambivalent about the final product, recognizing it as an impressive and disturbing piece of cinema but seeing in it only the skeleton of his story. A subsequent TV mini-series was made that stuck closely to the text of the book and, according to King, is the definitive adaptation of The Shining. The movie remains more Kubrick and Nicholson than King.

The Shining is a long movie, clocking in at almost 2 1/2 hours. Despite its deliberate pacing, it moves quickly, in large part because of the extraordinary way that Kubrick builds and deepens the sense of dread. Even seemingly normal and innocent moments - such as Danny tooling around the corridors of the hotel on his Big Wheel (with the sound of the wheels echoing on hard wood and muffled on carpet) - are overshadowed by an encroaching sense of the ominous. Technically, The Shining may be one of the most perfect motion pictures I have seen. It's too bad that the same level of excellence doesn't extend to the performances and screenplay. The Shining is well worth experiencing, but it does not rank as a member of Kubrick's top echelon of cinematic achievements.

Shining, The (United States, 1980)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 1980-05-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1