The Shining part 2: The Interview

“Hi, I’m Jack. I’m totally not crazy.”











The Shining opens with a series of glorious shots of a yellow VW bug driving up a mountain road.  The mountains are large, the VW is small.

The car, we will soon learn, belongs to Jack Torrance, who’s driving up to the Overlook to interview for the chopping up his family caretaker job.

Why doesn’t the movie open with a scene of Jack, in the car, listening to the radio as he winds his way up the road?  Halloran gets shots like that later, while he’s driving his snow-cat up those same roads through the snow.

The difference between Jack driving up in the fall and Halloran driving up in the winter is: Kubrick wants us to identify with Halloran, and he wants Jack to get lost in the landscape.  The landscape overwhelms the yellow VW, even swallows it up at one point as he drives through a tunnel.  Because the VW is the first relatable thing we see in the movie, the viewer identifies with it and shares its sense of being a tiny thing in a vast, forbidding landscape.

So Jack walks into this hotel lobby for an interview with Mr. Ullman.  He is, we can see, the moment he walks in the door, barely holding himself together.  He’s Jack Nicholson, for heaven’s sake.  And Jack Nicholson, being one of the great film actors in history, is perfectly capable of looking “normal” if he wants to, but here, we see, he’s just one step away from jumping up and down and screaming.

Odd as it may seem, this is intentional.  In the novel, Jack Torrance is a good-but-flawed man, and one who’s trying his best to hold his life together and be honorable.  Movie Jack, on the other hand, is already champing at the bit to get himself alone and do a little family murdering.  Kubrick has mentioned that he wanted it this way, that he wanted the audience to feel like Jack is already teetering on the brink, so that we believe it when he goes utterly off the rails later.

Jack gets guided by a friendly desk clerk and meets Mr. Ullman and his receptionist, Susie.  Mr. Ullman then asks Susie to go and get another guy, Bill Watson, to sit in on the meeting.

Now, for expository purposes, all we really need in a scene labeled “The Interview” is Ullman and Jack in Ullman’s office talking.  Why is there a desk clerk, Susie and Bill Watson wandering around in the scene?

Two reasons occur to me, one schematic and one dramatic.  Schematically, the various functionaries who flit in and out and do nothing are all part of Ullman’s world, the world of the hotel, this rotten, evil hotel.  By having them in the movie playing such colorless, undramatic roles, Kubrick is illustrating the banality of the appearance.  If it were just Jack and Ullman alone in Ullman’s office, with a closed door, the scene would have the ominous quality of a Faustian seduction.  Instead, everything looks completely above board and friendly, boring even, as Jack signs away his sanity.

Dramatically, Bill Watson needs to be sitting there next to Jack, not saying anything, because when Ullman tells Jack the story of Charles Grady, the caretaker who murders his family, he needs Jack to not freak out.  If it’s just Ullman and Jack, Jack could say “What?  You made me drive all the way up here to take a job that might make me kill my family?!”  But with Bill Watson sitting there, Jack must now man up and say “Why, that’s just fine.”  He even adds that his wife, Wendy, will love the story about the caretaker who murdered his family.

Why?  Well, as I said yesterday, Jack says “I’m looking for a change,” then adds that “isolation” and “five months of peace and quiet are just what I’m looking for.”  Indeed, if Jack murders his family on the first night of their stay, five months of peace and quiet are exactly what he’ll get.  In the spring, the police will show up and arrest him, but maybe he’ll have his “writing project” done then.









While Jack talks to Ullman, down the mountain Wendy and Danny pass the day by watching cartoons (Danny) and reading The Catcher in the Rye (Wendy).  Danny reminds Wendy that he has no friends where they live now (because they had to move to Colorado from Vermont, seemingly unwillingly).  Now we know that Danny and Wendy have nothing going on in their lives.  They’re weak and frightened people.  What are they frightened of?  They’re frightened of Jack.  Danny’s alter ego, Tony, the little boy who lives in Danny’s mouth, speaks out on this matter.

(When Tony speaks to Wendy, Danny uses a high, squeaky voice.  But when Tony speaks to Danny, he has a low, growly voice.  Obviously, when Tony talks to Wendy, it’s just Danny pretending to have an imaginary friend, but when Tony talks to Danny, it’s really Tony talking.)

Who is Tony, besides being Danny’s imaginary friend?  Tony is Danny’s psychic powers.  Danny has known that he’s had psychic powers for a while now, but he doesn’t understand his power and it frightens him.  Even though his room is crammed full of cuddly, smiling animals (Snoopy, Goofy, Woodstock, Mickey Mouse, and assorted horses, bears and lions all appear as backup to Danny’s insecurity), Danny is a terrified little boy with a power he doesn’t understand.

Tony tells Danny that Danny must never tell anyone about his power.  Why?  Because Wendy would be concerned, and Jack would probably kill him.  Jack dislocated Danny’s arm once in the past just because he messed up some papers, who knows what he would do if he found out his son had psychic powers?








Tony shows Danny some pretty shocking images of the Overlook Hotel — the twin girls in the hallway, the elevator full of blood — and yet Danny doesn’t pitch a fit and scream that he’ll never allow his parents to take him to such a horrible place.  Why not?  Because he’s worried that his father might kill him.  Justifiably so.

Or maybe he does pitch a fit after all.  He blacks out after he has his visions, and a doctor comes to examine him.  The doctor finds nothing wrong with Danny, but a little probing from the doctor reveals a great deal about Danny’s problems, and Wendy’s.  Danny, we learn, is an abused child, Jack is an alcoholic, and Wendy is clearly the Mouse Who Set Up Housekeeping With the Cat.  She’s petrified at the mere mention of Jack.  For a lot of viewers, this is a huge barrier.  I’ve heard otherwise rational, good-hearted people say “I don’t blame Jack, after two minutes I wanted to hit her in the face with an axe.”  Again, this is intentional — Kubrick has designed his narrative so that the notion of Jack going off the rails and killing his wife and son doesn’t seem that far-fetched.