The chilling and terrifying “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick asks us to decide who is the trustworthy observer. Whose version of events can we believe? The people appear trustworthy in the opening scene at a job interview, while the speech has a formality that resembles the small talk on the space station in “2001.”
We meet Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a father who intends to spend the winter alone with his wife and son. He’ll take over as manager of the snowbound Overlook Hotel.
His boss informs him that a past caregiver murdered his wife and two daughters before killing himself, but Jack assures him, “You can be confident, Mr. Ullman, that’s not going to happen with me.” And I’m confident that when I tell my wife about it, she’ll be completely enthralled. She is a proven fan of ghost stories and horror films.”
Is this how people talk about real tragedies? Will his wife be completely enthralled? Is he ever going to tell her about it? Jack, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and Danny (Danny Lloyd) move into the massive hotel as the staff prepares to close it down for the winter; the chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), gives them a tour, emphasizing the food storage vault (“You folks can eat up here a whole year and never have the same menu twice”).
When they are alone, the routine begins: While Wendy and Danny create a version of regular life with morning cereal, toys, and a lot of TVs, Jack sits at a typewriter in the big hall, pounding relentlessly on his typewriter. There is no sense that the three work as a loving family.
Danny: Is he dependable? He has an imagined friend named Tony who speaks in Danny’s lower register. Hallorann cautions Danny to avoid Room 237, where the violence occurred, in a brief talk before leaving the family alone, and tells Danny they share the “shining,” the psychic power of reading minds and seeing the past and future. Danny informs Dick that Tony does not want them to discuss such matters. What is Tony’s name?
Tony appears to be Danny’s conduit for psychic input, including a chilling image of blood gushing from the hotel elevators’ closed doors. Danny also notices two little girls dressed in matching outfits; even though the murdered children were two years apart in age, both girls appear unusually old. If Danny is a reliable witness, he is witness to his own specialized visions that may or may not correspond to what is happening in the hotel.
That leaves Wendy, who has the same matter-of-fact banality as Shelley Duvall in Altman’s “3 Women” for most of the film. She is Danny’s buddy and playmate, and she tries to cheer Jack up until he abruptly and obscenely urges her to quit interfering with his work.
Much later, in one of the film’s stunning discoveries, she discovers the actuality of that labor. I believe she is trustworthy at that point, and again near the end when she bolts Jack into the food locker after he becomes violent.
However, a deleted scene from “The Shining” (1980) shows Wendy’s dependability in an unusual light. On a cold night near the climax of the film, Jack chases Danny into the hotel grounds’ labyrinth. His kid flees, and Jack, who has already been hit with a baseball bat, staggers, falls and is discovered dead the next day, his face frozen into a horrific grimace.
He’s peering up at us from beneath lowered brows, an attitude Kubrick employs frequently in his films. According to critic Tim Dirks, “a two-minute explanatory epilogue was removed shortly after the film’s premiere.” Wendy was in the hospital, speaking with the hotel management when she learned that searches had been unable to locate her husband’s remains.”
If Jack had actually frozen to death in the labyrinth, his body would have been discovered sooner rather than later, given that Dick Hallorann had alerted the forest rangers to significant trouble at the hotel. What happened to Jack’s body if it wasn’t found? Was it never present? Was it absorbed into the past, and if so, how does Jack fit into the final shot of a gathering of hotel partygoers in 1921? Was Jack’s violent pursuit of his wife and child entirely in Wendy’s, Danny’s, or their imaginations?
Dick Hallorann is the only observer who appears trustworthy at all times, although his usefulness fades soon after his midwinter return to the hotel.
That leaves us with a closed-room mystery: three people descend into various states of insanity or psychic dread in a snowbound hotel, and we can’t rely on any of them to provide an objective account of what happens. Kubrick’s picture is incredibly unnerving because of its mysterious open-endedness.
Yes, some hallucination scenes can be understood. When Jack thinks he sees other people, there’s usually a mirror nearby; he could be talking to himself. Danny may be channeling the past catastrophe when he sees the small girls and rivers of blood.
Wendy may be correct in thinking her husband has gone insane, even if her vision of what happens is affected by psychic information from her son, who was profoundly damaged by his father’s brutality a few years ago. But what if there’s no one left at the end?