Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant that describes the day of judgement where the saved will be delivered and the rest cast down to hell, plays as the camera sweeps over the beautiful yet lonesome landscape. The winding road on which the audience views a car driving has no end or beginning creating a sense of ambiguity that is present throughout the entire film.
These factors, with the music portraying a sense of moral clarity and the cinematography creating a sense of moral ambiguity, set the stage for a story in which the greatest evil is the one that appears as good. This role reversal is achieved through not only the character development but the cinematography as well.
What Is The Shining About?
A brief recap and introduction to characters of The Shining will allow for a more comprehensive body of work. The film takes place in an undisclosed year (most likely the mid ‘70s) in the state of Colorado. The story centers around the Torrance family, made up of Jack (the father) Wendy (the mother), and Danny/Tony (the son and Tony his imaginary friend that he talks to). Jack takes up a job at the Overlook hotel high up in the Rocky Mountains where he will be working as the winter caretaker. He is told that the hotel is set over an indian burial ground and that the previous winter caretaker killed his wife and daughters. Jack blows off the stories as old ghost tales and accepts the job. After Jack’s interview Danny has frightening visions of the Overlook and Tony tells him not to go there.
As the manager takes Jack and family around on a tour of the hotel, we are introduced Dick Hallorann, the head cook. During the tour of the kitchen, Dick finds out that he can communicate with Danny telepathically because both share a cognitive power called “The Shining”. This power also allows them to see into the future and the past. Danny “shines”, sees something, and asks Dick what's in Room 237, to which Dick replies saying that Danny should never go in there.
Fast forward a month and the family has been living alone at the hotel and are enjoying their time there. Jack’s has been starting his novel and Wendy and Danny spend their time doing activities together. Several scenes involve Danny riding his big wheel tricycle around the hotel. On one of these trike rides, he pass room 237 and tries to go in but it's locked, spiking his interest in that room. Jack starts to act strangely, leading to a moment when he is sleeping at his typewriter and then starts screaming out loud for fear of his nightmare.
Wendy comes running to see what was wrong and Jack tells her that he had a dream that he was killing Wendy and Danny and chopping them up into little pieces. As Wendy helps Jack off the floor, Danny, who unbeknownst to them found room 237 open and went in to investigate, comes in looking traumatized with bruises on his neck. Wendy runs to him and blames Jack for the bruises because he had hurt Danny's arm once years ago. Jack, increasingly more frustrated, goes to the Gold Room in the hotel where he is meet with the ghostly aspiration of a bartender named Lloyd.
Wendy comes to the Gold Room and tells Jack that there is a crazy women in room 237 that tried to hurt Danny. Jack goes to investigate and finds a beautiful woman showering naked who steps out of the shower to come to him and they begin to kiss. It is then revealed that she is a decaying older women which scares Jack and he runs out of the room. He tells Wendy that there was nothing in room 237, and they begin to argue about whether Danny should be taken to a doctor. Jack is upset and returns to the Gold Room where he meets the ghost of the previous caretaker, Grady. Grady tells Jack that his family needs to be “corrected” and that Danny is trying to reach out to Dick telepathically. Dick receives the message and leaves from Florida to go to Colorado, while Danny falls into a trance, overcome by Tony, and keeps saying Redrum.
Wendy confronts Jack saying that they need to get Danny out of there and accidentally knocks him unconscious during the argument. She runs back to the room where Danny has written redrum on the wall. Wendy sees it reflected in the mirror, spelling out MURDER, as Jack, who had woken up, begins to break down the door with an axe. Wendy and Danny run to the bathroom and she helps Danny escape out the window. She cuts Jack's hand as he enters, and he leaves, hearing that Dick has arrived in a snowcat out front. Jack ambushes and kills Dick as Wendy runs through the hotel trying to find Danny. Jack chases Danny into the hedge maze, where Danny tricks him by retracing his steps and escapes to the snowcat with Wendy. The next morning Jack is found frozen to death in front of the hotel. The last scene of the movie shows an old photo in the hall dated July 4, 1921 featuring Jack amid a group of party goers.
Jack, in the original novel and as seen in the film, is portrayed as a kind of “everyman”. The way we focus on him in the first part of the film is as a normal father, who has completely normal relationships with the rest of the characters. He is center stage in the scenes he is present in, he is a school teacher and writer, and he is naturally flawed but not overly, helping to better establish our empathy with his character. But when he starts seeing ghosts and dreaming of butchering his family, we are disgusted; The character with whom we thought we were supposed to identify is now the villain, a villain, by the way, who is not even redeemed by the end of the film, but dies still trying to murder his son.
This twist is gradual, his evil growing evermore as he spends time in the hotel and falls farther into its grasps. But as we dwell on the pacing of his rise, or fall, to insanity, we kind of feel like we felt it coming, like they dragged it out long enough that his final descent into an axe swinging murder is not that surprising after all. We start out surprised but that passes into a feeling of, “yeah, well we saw that coming”. This is a specific point that Kubrick was trying to illustrate, that what we perceive as good is usually not so and that we should’ve, and probably did, see it coming.
What If Tony Is Actually The Moral Guide In The Shining?
Next we examine Tony, the evil spirit or demon or whatever creepy thing he is that is possessing Danny. The perfect childhood friend, he is presented through a horribly creepy voice, as a boy that lives in Danny’s mouth and shows him pictures of dead people and elevators full of blood. But what if instead of being closely related to Rasputin or Satan, he is actually the moral guide in “The Shining”, the Jiminy Cricket, the Gandalf, the conscience in a confusing and immoral world? This is because he is misrepresented at first, just as Jack is misrepresented in the beginning of the film. Tony is first seen as creepy, an ever present demonic antagonist. We never see him as a personage, he is only represented by a voice Danny makes and the wave of Danny’s index finger. Even in the end, when Tony ultimately possess the body of Danny and screams “Redrum” over and over again, we are lead to believe that Tony is an evil spirit just as the Overlook itself is evil.
Yet, in a closer analysis, we see that all Tony ever does is protect Danny. He tells Danny not to go to the hotel in the start of the film. He shows him visions of what happened to the Grady family and how that could happen to his family. Using the word “redrum”, he warns Wendy that Jack is going to try and kill them. He even has Danny bring Wendy a knife, which she later uses to cut Jack's hand and save her life. The evidence is very clear that Tony never does anything to harm Wendy or Danny, but the presentation of the character indicates that he would want to do nothing else.
This comparison, of the supposed protagonist actually being the villain and the perceived antagonist saving those in need, helps illustrate Kubrick's real lesson: That we should be weary of what we perceive as good and evil because they are usually misrepresented. The cinematography also plays a big part in illustrating this concept. As mentioned earlier in the opening scene Kubrick plays a lot with very large and open shots. This is present within the hotel as well, and helps to create an almost claustrophobic feel due to the lack of people. Hotels, especially a resort like the Overlook, are usually vacation locations, meant to help you feel relaxed and at home in a luxurious place. But the paradoxical claustrophobia which is only achieved through those wide, open shots is key in supporting Kubrick's argument. Hotel: good + Claustrophobia: evil = Claustrophobic Hotel: evil.
By building on the audience's preconceptions and then challenging those preconceptions, the film wants to persuade its audience that we take too much at face value, that we let the wolves into our pastures too often because as long as they dress like sheep they are. Kubrick wants us to lift the wool and check the facts, to dig a little deeper and look at the actions before making our judgement based off preconceived opinions. If the world could only except this idea, we would all be riding off in the snowcat, instead of dead on the floor like poor Dick Halloran.