Movies You Gotta See

‘The Shining’ further proves Jack Nicholson holds the Going Insane Championship Belt

By Jalen Maki
If you were to ask me what my favorite Stanley Kubrick movie is, I might tell you it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ask me tomorrow and there’s a good chance I’ll say it’s Barry Lyndon. Next week it’d probably be Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
But there’s one Kubrick film that has a critical element the others don’t, which ultimately makes it not only my true favorite movie of his, but my favorite horror film. It’s something that might even help it earn the distinction of being Kubrick’s crowning achievement. This crucial factor is “Jack Nicholson going insane.”
In Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a writer who signs on to be the over-winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rocky Mountains while it’s closed for the season. During his first visit to the hotel to discuss the job, Jack is informed that the previous caretaker committed a horrific crime on the premises, to which Jack responds with an odd level of calm. I feel like such information would give most people pause. “Hey, the guy who used to have the gig you’re going for went completely berserk and did something heinous beyond belief. Wanna take his place and hang out here for like four months?” “What? No. I’m good, man. Thanks, though. Take care!”
But Jack accepts the job, figuring it’d give him time to get some writing done. I gotta tell ya, I enjoy his naïve optimism. I don’t think there’s a single place on this planet where a writer could not find a way to procrastinate. If I were stuck in an empty hotel for several months with nothing but my laptop, I’d be counting the ice machines within an hour and a half.
Jack, along with his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny, hole up in the huge, remote hotel, and as winter drags on, the vibes seriously begin to deteriorate. Danny, who possesses psychic abilities referred to as “shining,” sees unsettling visions. Meanwhile, Jack’s cognitive state, seemingly affected by isolation, boredom, a severe case of writer’s block, and otherworldly forces within the hotel, begins to slip. As Jack declines psychologically, he grows increasingly menacing toward Wendy and Danny. At a key point in the film, Jack, who had quit drinking a few months before arriving at the hotel and had injured Danny in a drunken outburst years earlier, bellies up to the bar in a large ballroom, knocks back a bourbon or two and shoots the breeze with Lloyd, a bartender who may or may not be there. Watching a man evidently oblivious to his cataclysmic mental break, and subsequently considering the danger he poses to his family, is truly chilling and accentuates a feeling of claustrophobia, despite the hotel’s massive size. The fact that Wendy and Danny are trapped in the snow-drifted building with Jack all but reduces the colossal resort to a single-family home. There’s nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
Jack’s descent into madness is among the most entrancing and horrifying things ever put to film, and it’s intensified by Nicholson’s remarkable ability to convey his emotions in a physical fashion. Nicholson has one of the most expressive faces in the history of Hollywood, and the singular combination of his eyes, eyebrows, smile, voice, and laugh – and when and how he utilizes them – are invaluable traits when he’s letting a few screws come loose.
The superb 1975 drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest showcases Nicholson at the top of his game. Playing a man who motivates his fellow patients at a mental institution to defy the iron fist rule of a dictatorial nurse, his stellar performance is propelled by his manic physicality. In Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Nicholson shines as The Joker, the infamous villain also known as The Clown Prince of Crime – not a description typically applied to a fellow known for Being Normal. Running amok clad in a purple suit and makeup seems like the kind of thing only Nicholson could’ve truly pulled off. One of the most electrifying yet mystifying performances of Nicholson’s career is in Martin Scorsese’s astounding 2006 film The Departed, in which he plays an aging, eccentric Boston Irish mobster. I’m honestly not sure if Nicholson’s even particularly good in the movie, but there’s no denying how fun he is to watch when he’s given a long creative leash.
The Shining is truly one of the greatest films of all time, directed by maybe the best American filmmaker. There’s never-ending content about the film to be found – documentaries, books, YouTube deep dives, and Reddit threads – covering everything from the making of the film to its myriad debated themes and deeper meanings. They’re fun rabbit holes to go down and make revisiting the film very rewarding, but it’s Nicholson’s performance that brings me back at least once a year. With every viewing, Jack’s downward spiral never becomes any less captivating; if anything, it grows even more stunning and disturbing.
When looking at the totality of Nicholson’s filmography, The Shining stands out as a high-water mark – maybe the high-water mark. It might be the key movie in making the case that when it comes to just absolutely sending it, there’s no one better. As brilliant as he is in more laid back or subdued roles, Nicholson’s at his best when he’s cutting loose, and I’m sure the only person who enjoys this more than the audience does is Jack Nicholson himself. After all, it can’t be all work and no play.
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