The genius of Stanley Kubrick is readily apparent in the opening “segment” of The Shining, in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) painstakingly drives to, arrives at, and participates in an almost-real-time job interview.
The exquisitely slow burn takes the audience through an experience so familiar that it is almost mundane, up until the point where Mr. Ullman asks whether Jack knows about the “tragedy of 1970.”
Between this and “Tony,” Danny Torrance’s imaginary friend, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to understand that something incredibly sinister is at work. But it is the path that Kubrick uses to get there that is so fascinating.
The Shining incorporates a few pieces we’ve seen before in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection. Namely, Kubrick (2001 and A Clockwork Orange), Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Scatman Crothers (also Cuckoo’s Nest). All three work superbly.
So, too, does Shelley Duvall, as Jack’s harrowed wife who was already close to a breakdown even before her husband began chasing her around with an axe.
Kubrick’s direction is excellent, but, even for a Stephen King story, the narrative starts breaking down a lot toward the end. What’s real? What isn’t? What does it all mean? Has Jack actually always been at the hotel? Or did he just briefly time-travel? Or something else?
Unlike 2001, which inspires speculation and interpretation, I find myself more indifferent than anything else as to what’s going on in The Shining, chalking it up to some kind of curse emanating from the fact that the hotel is built on an “Indian burial ground,” according to a passing reference early in the film.
Notwithstanding the film’s weaknesses, what Kubrick gets very right is going to painstaking lengths to establish for the viewer just how perfectly routine and boring everything is in terms of the caretaking job (including a thorough tour of the kitchen inventory), which helps foster the sense of percolating terror that comes as the film unfolds.
Put another way, a lot of viewers will be able not only to picture themselves doing that kind of job, but even to fantasize about how enjoyable it might be to have the run of the Overlook for several months. As Jack goes insane, the same questions of “how would I be affected by that kind of isolation” present in the viewer’s mind even as he watches Jack’s nightmare unfold.
For the record, I think I would love it, and I would definitely not murder my family.
It’s fascinating to watch this film so quickly after seeing Cuckoo’s Nest, contrasting a Nicholson performance of a sane man who is treated as if he is insane to the one we get here, of a man who goes completely, unquestionably insane over the course of two hours. Nicholson, Duvall, and Kubrick make The Shining worthwhile, but, of the three Kubrick films in this collection, this is pretty clearly the third-place finisher.