Incredible score. Steady camerawork. Jack Nicholson going insane. This movie has it all.
The Shining is a legendary film directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1980. The movie has taken on a legend of its own with fans pulling a vast array of hidden meanings from every moment in this movie. However, putting all that aside, how does the movie hold up as a movie? Really well.
The story concerns Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, a recovering alcoholic and wannabe writer who takes a job as caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel during the winter. Jack brings his wife Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall, and his son Danny, played by Danny Lloyd. Soon the family is cut off from the outside world completely by the snow and they are left to their own devices. This seems fine to Wendy, but Jack soon dives headfirst into insanity, and Danny awakens the dark spirits that lurk in the hotel.
The score for this movie is incredible. Most of the fear and unease in the movie comes from the score. The way the music accents and enhances every scene creates a perfect harmony with the images on screen. Most of the film is shot in a pretty straightforward observational style. With the sound off, the movie wouldn’t be particularly scary, but the this soundtrack the camera becomes an haunting observer stalking these characters and prowling the corners of the hotel. So many scenes are simply the camera following someone walking down long hallways, but those moments are turned on their ear and take on a fearful and dreadful atmosphere with this music behind them.
The design of the hotel is absolutely incredible. The set decoration makes the hotel huge and cavernous. The characters often seem to be swallowed up by the sheer size of the place. High ceilings, massive windows, and deep endless hallways build an atmosphere of isolation. These characters are completely alone.
Speaking of the characters, Danny is a cute kid. He gives a very convincing performance and feels genuine even when his voice gets croaky and he speaks for his “imaginary” friend Tony. This could feel forced, but he sells it. Wendy is more an idea than a character here. We get very little insight into who she is. She just sort of goes along with everything. We don’t really know how she feels about moving to the hotel. We don’t really get the sense of how the hotel is affecting her. It isn’t until things go very wrong that she shifts into a new gear, a gear she remains in for the rest of the film. That gear is of course screaming and crying and panicking. It’s not Duvall’s fault. She does a believable job with what she’s given. She just isn’t given much. Kind mom or horror victim.
The real star performance is Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. He is given the most to do. He is given the most personality and the most identity outside of what’s happening in the moment. His performance is incredible. His descent into madness is thrilling to watch, and nobody plays anger like Jack Nicholson. His emotional volatility is magnetic to watch. His eyes go from glazed to wild and ferocious in an instant. He is so good in this movie.
That said, the movie bungles his character arc. He is the one character in this movie who is supposed to have an arc. On the page he begins as a father trying to put his past behind him, but a genuinely good guy. On the screen, Jack Nicholson is clearly two thirds of the way to crazy before he ever sets foot in the hotel. He is nuts from the first frame. He has one moment with Wendy in which he seems like a normal guy, then in the very next scene he is ranting and raving and cursing Wendy out, crazy man style. It’s an interesting case of the visual and the performance being at odds with the script. There is no character arc even though there should be one.
Spoilers real quick… There is some debate as to whether or not the ghosts are real or if its all in Jack’s head. I’d like to take this opportunity to say that they ghosts are real. They have to be. Jack isn’t the only one who sees them. Wendy sees ghosts at the end too. Danny is physically assaulted by a ghost. Jack is locked in a pantry, but the door is unlocked for him. To anyone who disagrees, I’m sorry, but the text of the film clearly states that they are real.
This movie is relentless engaging. The first time I saw it, I was so engrossed I completely lost track of time. The same thing happened this year when I watched it. I was so captivated by the methodical filmmaking, and the electric performance from Nicholson that I lost track of time and was totally pulled in. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is utterly engrossing.
It is my cup of tea. A-