Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining undoubtedly deserves its reputation as one of the cinema's creepiest, and most artful, horror films. Adapted loosely from Stephen King's novel about a hotel caretaker who loses his mind over the course of a long and isolated winter, the film is a bizarre and unrelenting experience, a slow pressure cooker that bears down on the viewer in much the same way as Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) isolation affects him. Kubrick strips down the story to its bare core, as a study in slowly suffocating dread and terror. The film's pace is deliberate, and its plotting is minimal; Kubrick establishes the dominant mood through his evocative, distanced visuals and, especially, through the eerie soundtrack, with its pulsating heartbeat rhythms and sinister strings. In point of fact, it's easy to miss that not much actually happens here, that the film's actual horrific incidents are widely spaced and parceled out. More often, Kubrick lets the terror grow and grow, through lengthy and uncomfortable scenes that create the expectation of a horrible payoff, before abruptly cutting them off instead.
What's at the core of the film is the dysfunction of family, the bitter and ugly feelings that emerge from troubled father figure Jack. He's taken on a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, where he'll be snowbound for months with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). While there, Jack, under the influence of the hotel's many ghosts or just his own unstable mind, begins to seethe with resentment and hate, feeling that his family is in some way holding him back or destroying his life. These sentiments are latent in Jack to begin with, as revealed by a story that Wendy tells to a concerned physician before the family heads to the Overlook. It seems that Jack had once been a drinker, and in an angry, uncontrolled moment had dislocated Danny's arm. This is a remarkable scene, staged almost entirely as a closeup on Wendy's face as she describes this incident, trying to put a positive gloss on it, to pretend that it was just an ordinary mishap. Kubrick captures her twitching smile, the way Duvall conveys the anguish and confusion lurking just below Wendy's chipper exterior. Duvall's performance here is extraordinary, as she bares her gums and her big buckteeth, while Kubrick holds the closeup, and holds it, and holds it, finally cutting to the skeptical, deadpan expression on the doctor's face, a stand-in for the audience, seeing right through Wendy's desperate cheerfulness. The scene perfectly conveys the multiple layers at work here, all in a simple memory that gets at the essence of this story's themes.
Wendy's insecurity about her potentially violent husband only worsens once the family is locked in at the Overlook, and this story about the dislocated arm lends queasy resonance to Jack's interactions with his family. At one point, Jack calls Danny over for a conversation, holding the boy in his lap and hugging him, asking him innocuous questions about how things are going and how he likes the hotel. It's a seemingly normal conversation on its face, but it's made creepy and strange by Nicholson's twitchy performance, and by the slowly escalating dread in the music. Kubrick treats everything this way; even the typewriter that Jack writes on is made an object of terror with a slow pan in towards its carriage, and of course later in the film this terror is revealed to be warranted when Wendy finally reads Jack's manuscript.
The Shining's particular form of terror is familiar by this point, even overly familiar, but it maintains its power because of Kubrick's subtlety, his decision to treat Jack's escalating madness as a surreal break with reality. The famous scene where Jack talks to the ghostly Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel) is a case in point. Jack walks into an empty ballroom and sits down at the bar, then Kubrick cuts to a closeup of Jack talking, presumably to himself, before cutting back to the longer shot of the bar, which is now stocked with bottles of booze and staffed by the suavely sinister Lloyd. The climax is even more startling in its disjunction from reality, as a frazzled Wendy staggers through the Overlook, catching glimpses of horrifying and puzzling sights, like what appears to be a man in a bear/pig mask giving head to a man in a suit. This famously inscrutable image, so unsettling in its effect, is a leftover from King's novel, where these characters had a story and a reason for being. Here, in Kubrick's film, without this context, it's simply a destabilizing surrealist break, a non-sequitur without any possibility of explanation or understanding.
Kubrick makes it absurd, and scary, and unfathomable, just as he strips much of the psychological rationalization from Jack. Kubrick keeps Jack's pathology at a distance, not only shooting everything in alienating long shots, but refusing to show the process by which Jack transforms from a slightly troubled family man into a raging lunatic. Instead, Jack's madness is shown from his family's point of view, as unexplainable and abrupt outbursts, as mood swings and sudden fits of rage without any clear cause. By the time Jack actually starts seeing ghosts — like his encounters with Lloyd and the hotel's former caretaker Grady (Philip Stone), who'd murdered his family many years before — he's already become violently angry. Nicholson's portrayal is of a man who is always just barely balancing on the edge of murderous rage to begin with, since Nicholson is almost naturally kind of creepy, with his sarcastic drawl and crooked smirk. Even before the family arrives at the Overlook, Jack tells his son about the Donner Party, taking such obvious satisfaction in freaking out the kid that he already comes across as a bit of a sadist.
Kubrick isolates this distasteful character within the Overlook's oversized rooms, not delving into his character but simply showing his disintegration from a distance. Wendy and the psychic Danny are shown at a similar remove, and Wendy's characterization is particularly limiting, as she is mostly just a weepy, insecure woman who sticks by a potentially abusive and nasty man. She nearly falls apart by the end of the film, and it's only Duvall's gape-eyed performance that gives Wendy some much-needed depth beyond her repetitive terror and crying. Ultimately, Kubrick makes the limitations of his archetypal characters into virtues, as the film is more about an abstract feeling of dread and the threat of violence than it is about a particular family and their horrific experiences. This is especially obvious in the character of the hotel cook Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), a stereotypical "magical Negro" character who can hear Danny's psychic cries. He shows up at the hotel after a lengthy struggle through the snow to get there, and just as suddenly gets an axe in his chest for his troubles. It's essentially a macabre joke from Kubrick, as he spends so much time chronicling Hallorann's journey to the Overlook only to abruptly destroy the pat hope represented by this rescue attempt. This is the film's essence, this reminder that hope and rescue can't come from outside: it's only Danny's cleverness during the final hedge maze sequence that ultimately saves him and his mom.