Friday, August 5, 2016

THE SHINING (1980) - ****½

Rated R
Running time: 146 min.
Release date: May 23, 1980

There is an early scene in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining that provides a lot of insight into how a man feels about his family and his mental state before anything even happens in the film. The family is piled into the car and driving to their destination. The man's wife asks questions, while the man himself looks and sounds exasperated and irritated with her. Then when their son says that he knows about cannibalism from television, the man has a mischievous glint in his eye and his eyebrows have taken on a curiously evil-looking tilt. Perhaps before events even unfold, we have a character on the verge of a breakdown, and a family already broken down.

Jack Nicholson stars as Jack Torrance, a former school teacher-turned aspiring writer. He has just taken a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The general manager (Barry Nelson) informs Jack that there was a tragedy at the hotel ten years earlier involving a previous caretaker murdering his family. Jack, rather nonchalantly, tells the general manager that he is fine with that and his wife will be fascinated, because she is "a ghost story and horror film addict". His wife is Wendy (Shelley Duvall), a meek, submissive sort who makes excuses for her husband when she tells a doctor that he once injured their son in a drunken rage. He hasn't had a drop of alcohol in five months, but that doesn't necessarily mean he is a recovering alcoholic. There are some signs early in the movie that he is holding a lot back, including resentment of his family. Their son is Danny (Danny Lloyd), who has what we at first think is an imaginary friend named "Tony". However, it turns out that "Tony" is the manifestation of some incredible psychic powers that the boy has. He knows when his dad has accepted the job before he has even called to give Wendy the news, for instance. "Tony" also expresses reservations about moving to the hotel, as he provides Danny with a frightening image of an elevator releasing a raging river of blood into a hallway. This is an image that Kubrick uses several times in the film.

When the Torrance family get to the hotel on closing day, we meet the chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). He meets Danny and takes him for some ice cream as an excuse to talk to him privately about "The Shining", which is a name he gives to the psychic powers that the two of them have in common. He also gives Danny a stern warning to stay out of room 237. Which, of course, means that Danny is going to check out room 237 later on. Jack is taken with the hotel; he feels the seclusion is beneficial to his writing but feels like he's been here before. On the surface, it would appear that all is going normally, but the film's musical score indicates otherwise. Throughout the film, we are treated to a creepy, haunting tone through the music. Something is happening just under the surface, and it is reaching a boiling point. Within a month, Jack is struggling at his typewriter and hasn't really done any caretaking, so to speak. Not on camera, anyway. It doesn't take long before he is angrily telling Wendy to stop distracting him. Meanwhile, Danny has several encounters with apparitions of twin girls, the children of the caretaker that murdered his family years ago. Jack becomes distant and appears to be losing a battle with some unseen force. He stops sleeping, becomes haggard, has horrible nightmares and stares out the window, almost appearing lobotomized. 

An incident occurs that sends Jack into a fit of frustration and rage, and the Overlook appears to take advantage of that. Jack starts to see ghosts fill the ballroom of the hotel, as a bartender named Lloyd (Joe Turkel) serves him alcohol. Soon after, Jack has an encounter with a ghost named Grady (Phillip Stone), who shares the same name as the previous caretaker that murdered his family. The conversation between Jack and Grady becomes the film's turning point. Phillip Stone seemingly turns from an apologetic and humble servant into a sneering, condescending entity with malicious intent. Stone does this just by changing the expression in his eyes. A small role made remarkable. 

Jack Nicholson gives a career-defining performance in The Shining. Early in the film, he already appears to be holding back his tension and rage for the benefit of his family but when he lets go, it is at once a funny and frightening performance. Shelley Duvall is perfectly cast as Wendy, frumpy and mousey and somewhat sad. Together, Jack and Wendy do not even appear to be a happy couple. To look at them together, it gives the immediate impression that something is amiss between them. Duvall is the perfect choice to put opposite Nicholson in this case. Young Danny Lloyd provides a surprisingly strong turn as movie Danny. He's quiet and a little withdrawn, but when he is frightened by the images he sees, we feel scared for him. 

Kubrick has injected much atmosphere into The Shining. It starts at the very beginning with the score; creepy music fills our ears even as the only thing we see is a car driving through some beautiful mountain scenery. He has taken a spacious and grand hotel like the Overlook and turned it into a claustrophobic setting, providing the Torrance family with very small living quarters inside this wide open space. Kubrick's camera tracking shots while Danny races through the hotel on his Big Wheel allows the viewer to follow this boy who seems to know where he's going through this maze of hallways, which of course, is important to remember during the final scenes of the film. If the film has any drawbacks, it may be that it's running time was a little too long. There is also a plot hole involving characters who can foresee the future, but for some reason are unable to foresee their own fate. These are just small nitpicks. The Shining truly is a masterstroke of a film for Kubrick. Every scene seems to be building to a high-pitched boiling point, to the extent that even a title card that says MONDAY provides a jump scare. 

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