Stanley Kubrick seems to operate in dreamscapes. All of his films manage to come off realistic – because he’s always been so apt at presenting his characters authentically when he reels them in from their sources. But there’s always a clockwork underneath that doesn’t feel a bit like realism. Atmosphere that feels otherworldly and disconnected. A kind of consistent style that even some of the most consistent of auteurs fail to really nail with such a distinct, ethereal and cinematic quality; one that most would consider cold and aloof. But, as with the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the inconsistent bookends of Lolita – not to mention the entirety of Eyes Wide Shut and blatancy of that particular title’s source material – there is that similar distinction within The Shining, and Kubrick throws this on the audience at its highest levels by featuring a literal sequence of Jack Nicholson’s character suffering a horrendous nightmare during a pinnacle moment in the plot.
The Shining is one of the few films that makes me entirely uncomfortable (and, interestingly enough, one of three Kubrick films to actually do so) with simply the use of image and sound. For example, there are moments in the movie where there’s dread being drawn out via the story (most specifically the history of the goddam hotel), but simple moments – such as the sounds of Danny’s tricycle wheels on the building’s floorboards – feel just as wrong … and do so even on multiple viewings with perfect awareness that nothing’s necessarily about to happen at this particular point in time. And Kubrick was the master at such visceral composition, and the man was perfectly aware of that as to make The Shining one giant montage of such moments. This kind of unsettling approach is probably why it’s one of those movies (like Last Year at Marienbad and some of David Lynch’s work) that’s easy to pick apart and plug so much interpretation into.
It only comes natural that, by the end of this write-up, I’ll have already thrown my own Room 237 on this bitch. It’s pretty much unavoidable. But there is plenty on The Shining’s surface level that’s worth taking into more logical consideration – because the director founded a filmography on themes such as warfare and the denial of a human’s violent instincts – and both are very so apparent in the movie’s direction. There’s no coincidence in a character noting that the Overlook Hotel was built on a Native American burial ground, nor that the art direction in almost every scene alludes to the Natives in both pastiche design and/or literal paintings (something Kubrick did constantly in his work, as noted with his wife’s paintings peppered throughout Eyes Wide Shut). It’s also no mistake that – in one of my favorite moments of direction in The Shining – Shelley Duvall’s character sports neo-Pocahontas braids during a pinnacle moment following the clubbing of her husband with a baseball bat. These are exactly what fascinated Kubrick – and the majority of it wasn’t, to my knowledge, in Stephen King’s novel – so those recurring motifs to warfare, the denial of the human’s inner-violence have been inserted. The man’s fascination with history, that bloody foundation of societies, the brutality of man: all rolled up into one story involving looking both into – and outside of – the past. Is there anything less worthy of a ghost story?
The character of Danny can “shine” to and fro the past and present – a gift that’s both toxic and illuminating. His being only a kid adds density to it all; drawing compassion from the audience. To move on into my own “crazy” interpretation of certain elements within the film, I find it fitting that Danny has this ability. In a way, Danny’s own experiences with his mother and father – and abuse within that story – is the tormented yin to the universal bloody foundation’s yang. Similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and the not-so-subtle parallels of child sex abuse alongside the surface demonic possession, Kubrick was also a filmmaker that dived into sexual violence – not just with the rapists of A Clockwork Orange, but also the child-driven obviousness of Lolita and the blink-and-you-miss-it kidnapping of the couple’s daughter in the final scene of Eyes Wide Shut.
Danny has been abused. Physically. We know this, because his mother informs this to the boy’s psychiatrist and makes note of her husband’s plot-prominent alcoholism. The mother is aware of this, and has faith and optimism in her spouse’s control and eventual sobriety. And yet, she’s also still remaining in denial. I’d always felt like the abuse of Danny may have been deeper in Kubrick’s eyes than what he really wants to boldly inform. There’s an off-putting lack of romantic chemistry between Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, and the closest form of intimacy Nicholson’s character ever shows another is to his own son and a deformed ghost in the bathroom of the constantly-mentioned room 237.
The room itself almost exists as a ghost itself – only Jack and Danny having ever entered and being physically or emotionally harmed – and Wendy seeing absolutely nothing. It’s almost a heavy-handed notation, in a way, to the characters’ own “bloody history” and “denial of the darkest of human nature” – a mother ignoring the sexual abuse of her own son at the hands of his father. This makes Wendy’s constant moments of visualizing the Overlook Hotel’s “ghosts” (some of which are performing sexual acts on one another) in the film’s bizarrely ambiguous final act all the more understandable: she’s coming out of her denials. I think it’s only more amazing to note that Kubrick added the labyrinth into the overall story – and escaping the violence is all about exiting what was, in an earlier scene, looked down upon by the monstrous Jack. It’s really not even that subtle: he was the god in control of his family’s direction and thought processes.
This familial tragedy is superimposed with the hotel’s history – and, for that, they both fit snug with Kubrick’s own common viewpoints that approach levels of patriarchal control (the government treatments in A Clockwork Orange and the brainwashing of Full Metal Jacket; or when Sydney Pollack’s character hints at celebrities and political figures being the backbone of the occultic orgy in Eyes Wide Shut) – and also why the man was probably so passionately invested in studying the Holocaust until the day he died. The pieces fall in place almost prophetically, and Kubrick’s “coldness” really comes off richly warm and enlightening – much like most of his films. The Shining opens with these grand, endless stretches of land only tainted by long and winding roads. It follows the film’s predator in his car while the score, underneath that heavy (and iconic) theme, has a Native American chant echoing like a lost ghost. The awakening of repressed history before the monster finally makes it to that bloody hotel: a place to remind us of the darkness we all just want to forget, but is still there.