View Flaws Don’t Dim The Shining
by Janet Maslin
The hotel chef in The Shining is supposed to have remarkable psychic powers, but the movie never explains the strangest of this man’s idiosyncrasies: he can smell trouble from Miami to Colorado, but he doesn’t detect a killer standing 10 feet away from him, armed with an ax and wearing a horrible grin. The movie’s ghostly butler starts out with the name of Charles Grady, but he somehow becomes Delbert Grady before the story is finished. The caption on a closing photograph of Jack Nicholson utterly defies explanation. And the director, Stanley Kubrick, once again leaves his audiences asking a familiar question: How can anyone make a film so fastidiously beautiful and still leave so many loose ends?
The Shining may be a horror film, but it very much fits the Kubrick mold. First and foremost, it is mesmerizingly lovely, so handsome you may be halfway out of the theater before those nagging questions arise. Yet, like A Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is a movie that barely makes sense upon examination. Most of the small details seem meticulously chosen, but there’s no evidence that corresponding care has been taken with the film’s central concerns.
The story concerns a couple and their young son who agree to become winter caretakers of an isolated — and, as it turns out, haunted — hotel. Solitude and the supernatural turn the husband into a homicidal maniac, and he spends the latter half of the story stalking his wife and child. Meanwhile, the hotel produces ghosts that seem intent on terrorizing his family and egging him on. But when Shelley Duvall, who plays frightened wife to Nicholson’s crazed killer, is besieged by the Overlook Hotel’s full array of ghosts at the movie’s end, the visions — of cobwebs, torrents of blood, ghouls at a party, and one mysterious figure in a bear suit — are preposterous. Worse, they seem to have absolutely no bearing upon the rest of the film.
Perhaps the oddest thing about The Shining, therefore, is that it’s such a vibrant, provocative work that these gaffes don’t do it much harm. Kubrick’s films have always had an icy elegance that made their lesser lapses seem negligible by comparison. And The Shining, like Barry Lyndon, is so richly textured that it improves immeasurably upon second viewing, once an audience moves beyond worrying about a story line or taking the facts at face value. With these two films, Kubrick seems to be progressing into a more quietly contemplative phase of his career, a phase that finds him approaching his material from a serene and lengthy remove.
Just as Barry Lyndon found him more attentive to the painterly aspects of 18th-century England than to the narrative or irony of Thackeray’s novel, The Shining offers him an opportunity to speculate about the abstract properties of suspense. What will scare an audience? Kubrick approaches the matter playfully, as when he films a little boy riding a tricycle, lowering the camera to handlebar-level and exaggerating the sound of the wheels rolling across evenly-spaced rugs on a wooden floor.
The image is a harmless one, and still Kubrick makes it chilling. Indeed, the early parts of The Shining, which draw their ominousness from household artifacts and the hints of an unhappy marriage, are far more frightening than the standard horrorfilm fiendishness of the ending. Scaring the viewer is easy — a hack job like Friday the 13th is probably scarier than The Shining (and just as irrational, by the bye). What is harder, and what Kubrick does so ingeniously here, is to accentuate the horrifying aspects of things that are familiar. William Friedkin, in The Exorcist, gave a little girl a demonic voice that scared audiences silly by virtue of its foreignness. The Shining also features a child with an odd voice, but this may or may not be the sound of an imaginary playmate, and it’s something that’s made even more disturbing when the boy’s mother takes it for granted. Kubrick isn’t out for screams, but he manages to make his movie thoroughly unnerving by keeping the horror so close to home.
The domestic terror of The Shining, which eventually leads to a brilliantly staged, viciously satirical version of a household spat, marks something of a reversion for Kubrick; not since Lolita or Dr. Strangelove has he made a film with this much humanity or humor. “Wendy? I’m home!” declares Jack Nicholson, while chopping down a bathroom door in an effort to murder Miss Duvall. This has a certain archness, it’s true — like the thug who sings “Singin’ in the Rain” while administering a beating in A Clockwork Orange, or the computer that dies crooning “Daisy, Daisy” in 2001. But thanks in large part to Nicholson, who gives one of his most razor-sharp performances here, the black jokes of The Shining never become so stylized that they stop being funny. Not since Peter Sellers played Clare Quilty in Lolita has Kubrick created such a deliciously deadpan villain.
Actually, it is never made clear that Nicholson’s ax-murderer is a villain at all — the Overlook, where The Shining is set, is not the omniscient creation its name suggests, but another amoral Kubrick universe. A Clockwork Orange, which showed this strain of Kubrick’s work at its most pernicious, presented a world in which teenage vandals seemed no more or less sympathetic than their modishly-outfitted victims. In the coolly futuristic context of 2001, a similar dog-eat-dog attitude seemed less extreme.
But the utter affectlessness of Barry Lyndon, in which the title character’s moral transgressions were more likely to be mentioned in a voice-over than noticeable in the action, allowed the director a new detachment — and somehow, perversely, that made the work a little warmer. The morality of The Shining is so illdefined that the film never creates a clear sense of whether there’s anything wrong with a man’s murdering his wife and child — Kubrick’s directorial sympathies, such as they are, seem evenly split among the husband (the film’s most likable character, even at his most bloodthirsty), his family (their point of view is necessary, if only to generate suspense), and the hotel (which has rather a bewildering mind of its own). Nevertheless, with moral judgments in abeyance, Kubrick is able to strike the leisurely, reflective tone of Barry Lyndon, and also give this new film some of the humanity of an earlier work like Lolita.
Kubrick made a cut in The Shining the weekend after it opened, eliminating a slow scene near the ending. The change is minor, and it doesn’t substantiallly improve the film — if anything, it’s mildly damaging. The deleted scene imparted no new information, but it helped maintain the film’s languid, eerie rhythm. Without it, the ending is perhaps a little more economical, but also more abrupt. And the change seems especially senseless since the problems of The Shining were not to be remedied so easily, and since the movie’s drawbacks are so inextricably linked with its genius.
The price of Kubrick’s extraordinary visual sophistication may be a certain basic sloppiness — when a director demands dozens of takes on each scene and spends years and many millions on every project, perhaps the pieces aren’t easily assembled. And in crafting a film that can’t equal the sum of its parts, Kubrick is by no means alone — the more interesting new movies of the season, like Fame or The Long Riders, are very much in this same boat. But Kubrick brings a special dimension to The Shining, a breadth and extravagance no recent film has rivaled. His film becomes as remarkable for its scale as for the suspense it generates, and all the more fascinating for setting grand aspirations beside petty errors. If Kubrick’s things that go bump in the night have a way of bumping into each other, so what? The richness of his work is something rare.
Published: The New York Times, June 8, 1980