We finally complete our extended look at the films of Stanley Kubrick with part 3 of A Film Odyssey.
The Shining (1980) 8/10
Loosely based on the novel by Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is among the very first true epics of the horror genre, so vast in scope and ambition the running time can barely contain, let alone explain, the experience projected onscreen. The story concerns Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer and former alcoholic, who accepts a job to be the caretaker of the massive and isolated Overlook Hotel for the Winter. His wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) move in with him for the season and are snowed in. Danny seems to have psychic abilities called “shining” and begins to receive visions of the hotel's violent past. Reportedly the last caretaker of the hotel, Delbert Grady, murdered his family before taking his own life. Soon after, Jack and his family find themselves snowed in before Jack begins to follow in Mr. Grady's footsteps.
Seemingly disconnected and anecdotal before slyly linking all the details together, The Shining finds Kubrick at his most labyrinthine. Though the scenes of Jack Nicholson axing the bathroom door down with the infamous line “Here's Johnny” are familiar, you can watch The Shining dozens of times and still come up with a new questions which remain unanswered. Is Jack Torrance really the caretaker from 1921 and is the Overlook his ghostly Hell? Are there really supernatural occurrences taking place or are they merely hallucinations? How much of the film, if not all, takes place within Jack or Danny's head? Is it about the horrors of alcoholism terrorizing a family, or something far more sinister? Can Danny and the chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) really “shine”? When pondering the prospect of the afterlife or spirits wandering the Earth, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick shows far more than he tells.
Germane to Kubrick's work are his enormous set pieces filmed with precise care. Among his greatest are the war room in Dr. Strangelove, the centrifuge in 2001, and most notably, the Overlook hotel in The Shining. Filled with seemingly endless corridors with a penchant for red wallpapers, it's as though the walls have been painted with more blood than what flows from the elevator in Danny's visions. Stronger still is the operatic use of the Steadicam, gracefully careening through the halls and stairwells of the Overlook. It's as though we're gliding through a maze with no exit. Kubrick's gloriously surreal lighting give the walls and chandeliers an eerie glow, furthering a sense of either the supernatural or delirium. Avant-garde Polish composer Krzyzstof Pendercki's terrifying strings find themselves at perfect home here when the terror levels are turned up higher.
Considered a failure by it's famed author Stephen King for Kubrick's free use of creative license, as well as Jack Nicholson's spectacularly over-the-top performance of a man's gradual descent into maniacal sociopathy, The Shining for many years was considered Kubrick's first artistic failure. Kubrick himself responded to the public reaction to the film by withdrawing the film one week after it's world premiere to remove a coda which he felt offset the impact of the finale. Further still, in Europe the film was shorted by Kubrick again by 25 minutes, while curiously leaving the US version at it's initial 144 minute length.
Still, whatever your interpretation of the film is (and there are many, enough to fill the conspiracy theorist documentary Room 237), this is one of the lushest and richest horror films ever made, if not the fullest of ideas. Watching the film and attempting to discuss it will have viewers chasing their tails for decades trying to make sense of what we think we're seeing onscreen. Perhaps Kubrick meant for his film interpretation of Stephen King's novel to reflect the process of really trying to ponder the notion of spiritual entities and a dimension far beyond our realm of comprehension. Much like 2001, it aims to open the door wide and keep it from being closed.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) 8/10
With Kubrick's second military film dealing with firearms combat warfare, Full Metal Jacket has been called everything from the greatest war film ever made to a disservice to the military. Divided into two halves, we're immediately plunged neck deep into boot camp at the height of the Vietnam War. Seen from the perspective of omniscient narrator and trainee Private Joker (Matthew Modine), enter Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the Senior Drill Instructor (played by former Drill Sergeant R. Lee Ermey), and like the new recruits, we the audience are immediately and most certainly his. Undeniably this is most realistic portrait of basic military training ever put on film. From morning until night, Hartman systematically breaks down and rebuilds each trainee into a soldier. He swears, chides, derides, assaults and attacks until every recruit has his fears burned away. All except for one, that is, Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio), who can't seem to catch on and forms a tragic antagonism with the Drill Instructor.
The film then transports us and Private Joker directly into Vietnam, an abrupt transition and in some ways, a second movie. Some have argued the first half of Full Metal Jacket is so strong the second half doesn't live up to it, but for any soldier having undergone basic training, the world of Vietnam couldn't be anymore different than the one leading up to it. Upon his tour of duty, Joker witnesses ambushes, watches friends die in combat, casually looks the other way when others abuse their power, and finally evolves into a cold killer himself. In a way, Full Metal Jacket could be interpreted as one man's gradual journey into heartlessness as he becomes a trained killer. Joker is all snark and smiles until war seemingly destroys any trace of his former self. That the film's most formidable adversary happens to be a child says simply adds to the notion of lost innocence on the battlefield.
A Film Odyssey Part One
Though Kubrick had been planning Full Metal Jacket for well over a decade, many felt he was beaten to the finish line by other Vietnam pictures like Apocalpyse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. In hindsight, however, in terms of sales, critical consensus and legacy, critics and audiences still point to Full Metal Jacket as the unequivocal greatest war film of all time, largely for not taking a moral stance and not trying to bring politics or human rights issues into the picture. Moreover, it's a phenomenon, a machine which systematically churns people out and brings to light their inner murderer.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) 8/10
Kubrick's final swan song and most extravagant production to date, Eyes Wide Shut, is an unfairly maligned and misunderstood masterwork of illicit thoughts and a cold, hard notion that alternatives to monogamy will only end in death. Completed and edited just before Kubrick's untimely death, the film stars Tom Cruise as Bill Hartford, a married family man and doctor who with time has taken his wife and place in life for granted. After a stoned argument with his wife Alice Hardford (Nicole Kidman), Alice confesses on one of their prior Carribbean Cruise trips, she came dangerously close to having an affair with a sailor. Jealous and angry, Bill is thrust deep into the New York underworld of sex as trade, vengeance, and exploring one's own inner evil. Bill wanders the landscape of New York (filmed on an elaborate downtown set lit up like a Christmas tree) bumping into patients of his who long for him, prostitutes, and colleagues of his with more to hide than he realizes.
Contrary to the pop cultural notion that Eyes Wide Shut is a giant porn film depicting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman having sex onscreen (which never happens), it's really a horror film about dark forces not only posing threats to marriage, but to one's own life. Virtually every near sexual encounter Bill Hartford experiences narrowly evades death. While Bill may have been excited at the prospect of sinning and cheating on Alice, he finds the underworld beneath his nose is one he wishes he never opened his eyes to. It's most famous and opulent sequence involves a Satanic costumed orgy/masquerade ball with dozens of scattered nudes engaged in intercourse. Bill is found out as an outsider to the aristocratic engagement and is nearly ritualistically murdered before the cult. Worse still is Bill's realization that many of his best friends partook in the orgy and potential murder of a whore who sacrifices herself in Bill's place when he's found out. That the crime remains unresolved and tidily swept away can't help but continually haunt Bill for the remainder of the picture.
Unlike Kubrick's prior efforts, Eyes Wide Shut has a curious visual schema in that it's largely lensed with high-contrast grain, making the film appear as though it's being projected onto a thick carpet. Not until the Blu-ray release was Home Video able to reproduce the scratchy, archaic and dreamy look Kubrick painstakingly created. In true Kubrick form, he returns to his longtime avant garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who scored the shrieking monolith as well as numerous pieces for 'The Shining', to create a stark, minimal piano key thumping that speaks of pure dread. In terms of acting, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman both give solid performances borne of duress and exhaustion, as Kubrick would wear the actors out over 2 years of retakes. Cruise himself developed an ulcer during filming. The film also sports a unique performance from director Sydney Pollack as the wealthy entrepreneur and friend of Bill's who might have something to do with the supposed murder.
A Film Odyssey Part Two