Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is about a man (Jack Nicholson) who’s hired to be the winter caretaker for an old hotel. He moves in with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his son just as all the other hotel employees are leaving for the winter. The three settle into their routines; the mom doing chores, the kid riding his Big Wheel around the empty hallways, and the dad trying to write a book. Then a snowstorm cuts off the hotel from the rest of the world, and things get weird.
Well, actually things had been getting weird from the first scene. It seems the previous winter caretaker went crazy and murdered his family. This was blamed on the effects of isolation. When the mom tells the kid they’re going to move into a hotel, the kid has bloody visions of the future. He says that an invisible little boy talks to him and shows him these images. Is that just his way of processing his precognitive powers? Or is he actually communicating with some other person who has future knowledge? Perhaps a future version of himself?
Also, was Jack crazy from the start or did he get possessed by the evil hotel ghosts? Stephen King (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) famously hated Kubrick’s version because it implied that Jack was on the cusp of a psychotic break before they ever got to the hotel. Apparently in the book, Jack is a decidedly good man who saves the day in the end by committing suicide.
But in the film, none of these questions are completely answered. The fact that many details are left unexplained gives the movie a greater sense of mystery. You watch it and you find yourself wondering, unsure. That’s how you should feel when you watch a horror movie. We know just enough to follow the story, i.e. over the course of their stay in the hotel, Jack becomes more and more unhinged and then tries to kill his family. That’s all we need.
In the place of clearly defined story details, we have a beautiful and eerie location, some truly haunting images, and three great performances from the lead actors. Nicholson is perfect in one of his most Jack-Nicholsony roles. (I especially like the scene where Shelley Duvall interrupts him while he’s “working.”) The son (Danny Lloyd) is creepily authentic as the Weird Kid who talks to himself and scares his therapist. I’ve heard criticisms of Shelley Duvall in this movie, but I think she is perfect too. The stilted, awkward way she delivers her lines make sense for her character; she’s playing the role of the devoted wife and mother but she’s actually barely repressing her fear of both her abusive husband and her seemingly deranged son. When Jack finally snaps, she does too, and all the terror she’s been holding back comes flooding out.
Let’s talk about the ending. Jack chases his son into a hedge maze where the boy outsmarts him and escapes, leaving his father trapped, where he freezes to death. This is a clear resolution to the overall story. There is a stinger at the end though. The final shot is a closeup of a photograph that shows Jack at a party at the hotel in 1921. Wtf is that supposed to mean? In his 2006 essay on “The Shining” Roger Ebert speculated that Jack may have been “absorbed into the past.” Sure? That’s as good a theory as any. But the meaning of that photo, like the other unexplained details, isn’t critical to understanding the plot. This is in contrast to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in which the whole ending is so vague that it doesn’t provide a resolution to the story. Don’t get me wrong, I love “2001” but it’s more of a work of art than a story.
With “The Shining” Kubrick gives you just enough details to craft a coherent plot, but leaves as many mysteries as possible, allowing that feeling of uncertainty and dread to build up inside you as you watch it. A real snowstorm doesn’t hurt either.*