There have been decades’ worth of discussion about The Shining from theories to conspiracy theories to documentaries made about theories and conspiracy theories. So without belaboring things too much I’d like to focus on the basics: Kubrick, Nicholson, and Duvall.
Stanley Kubrick spent a career making you feel uncomfortable. Even in his lesser suspenseful efforts (Dr. Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey) there are moments of unease beneath the surface. Much of this comes from his choices in framing shots or lengthy moments of silence. But in many instances he purposely sets out to screw with you, and those are generally psychological. There’s a wonderful scene in A Clockwork Orange where the water levels in glasses on a table shift drastically from shot to shot. They’re not the focal point of the scene nor are they ever referenced to. But it happens. And only because Kubrick wants you to unknowingly suspect that something isn’t right. The same is done in The Shining when Wendy interrupts Jack’s writing to offer bringing him some sandwiches. Behind Jack, against a wall in the distance, are a table and chair that inexplicably disappear and appear again throughout the scene. Again, no reference. No reason. It wasn’t until seeing the movie multiple times that I’d realized it was happening, and when I did the sense of what I felt in that scene became so obvious.
My job here is to convey to you my thoughts and feelings on Nicholson’s performance. And I am struggling to do so because I keep falling on cliche and hyperbole. Jack Nicholson is mesmerizing in The Shining. Every scene, every line, and every look he gives feels like the culmination of his character. He builds and builds on Jack Torrence’s mental dip into mania with such a natural way about him that when I watched it again this week at a local theater, a friend of mine (who was seeing it for the first time in over a decade) said, “I’m not really sure he was actually acting.”. And THAT’S probably the perfect way of describing it. Nicholson is basically the bug in Men in Black who crawls inside Vincent D’Onofrio and becomes him. Nicholson is eaten and consumed by the character of Jack Torrence and does a Being John Malkovich puppeteer act for 150 minutes.
I’ve already shared my opinion on this site about Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrence, but what’s a few more words? She shines in it as much as Scatman Crothers. Duvall spends the last third of the movie freaking out, and it’s incredible. Before that she appears to be simply a convenient element to the story (a single dad in the early 80’s spending the winter locked up in a hotel with his young son probably wouldn’t fly). So, she’s just there for Jack to bounce his lines off of. But that’s not really the case. Duvall sets the groundwork for everything to come including Jack’s eventual rampage. Yes, she’s a convenience to move the story along, but she’s not a set piece. Her arc is paramount to the entire film, and it would be far less the masterpiece it is without her.
There is no denying the impact and importance The Shining has on it’s place in cinematic history. It’s as perfect even in it’s flaws (purposeful and otherwise) as anything ever made. It is frightening, suspenseful, beautiful, emotional, mechanical, metaphorical, visually striking, obscene, dark, and in the end completely open for interpretation. See it. And if you already have, see it again.
Don’t overlook our other must-see picks on our 31 Days of Halloween list here.