Room 237 is not about The Shining. It is about those lost in its labyrinth.
For better or for worse, Stanley Kubrick is one of the most potent gateway drugs for young cinephiles, and for many the early obsession proves lifelong. The addictive nature of his films is partly due to their own air of grandeur and carefully-crafted perfection, but the the popular perception of Kubrick as a total mastermind sweating every single detail of his films is belied by some accounts, such the surprisingly seat-of-his-pants making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the weight of reputation and self-seriousness often disguises the satire and sometimes even silly wit. Personally, I was exposed to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized how much of it was intentionally funny.
Perhaps even moreso than 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining is treated as a kind of holy book by a clique of cranks. And like all holy books, The Shining is big, deep, and rich enough to support almost any interpretation one might bring to it. If one looks hard and long enough for something, one will find it.
These Shining superfans evince little distinction between conscious authorial intent vs. after-the-fact critical deconstruction by outside observers. What is for most movie buffs a fun parlor game of spotting continuity errors is for them a deadly serious matter of asking what it all meeeeaannnns, man. In particular, the symbolism of the Overlook Hotel’s garden labyrinth tempts an examination of its indoor floorplan, which is indeed full of evident inconsistencies. But rather than consider the challenges of building a movie set, it’s more fun to read it as an exploration into the psychogeography of madness.
Some of the obsessives make interesting observations, but often undercut themselves. For instance: one egomaniac believes he has “solved” the film as Kubrick’s coded confession that he was involved in faking the Apollo moon landing footage. He interprets the hotel key lettering “ROOM No.” to be an anagram for “MOON”. He forgets “MORON”.
Has writer/director Frank Darabont been weighed down by the heavy legacy of his first feature film? The Shawshank Redemption remains one of the most popular movies ever made, if not quite (yet?) accepted into the canon. The Mist, after The Green Mile, is Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation, so far only having made only one feature not derived from a King work. After two prison yarns (one set very much in the real world, the other with a dash of the supernatural), Darabont now turns to one of King’s more characteristically gruesome horror tales.
King writes at great length about classic horror movies in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, and The Mist squarely fits into one kind of classic b-movie structure. We open in a seemingly bucolic lakeside town with simmering tensions between local residents and wealthier weekenders summering in lovely lakeside homes. A mysterious, mostly unseen, and definitely hostile alien force traps a random assortment of local personalities in a supermarket. The horror works best before we actually see any evidence of the supernatural; for example, a character bolts into the store, full of nervous but not yet terrified citizens, crying the simultaneously eerie and hilarious line “There’s something in the mist!” For home viewers, a big reveal was spoiled right in the DVD menus: one of the adversaries is a very biblical swarm of giant beastly locusts.
Like virtually every zombie movie ever made, a cross-section of society is trapped in a confined location, under siege by unstoppable forces. The microcosm includes representatives of all the usual suspects, including a top New York City lawyer (because we all know NYC sharks are more venal than the regular kind) Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a couple of good ol’ boys, the town cutie pie, a few handsome young lads from the nearby military base, and the resident looney fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The Mist is not above another classic horror movie cliche: the virginal good girl kisses a boy and dies horribly in the very next scene. The heroes that arise are, of course, unlikely: a grocery bagger (an interesting character with a lot left up to us to fill in: he’s not a young man, and he’s got brains and skills, so how did he end up in such a dead-end job?) and a relatively wealthy artist David (an outsider to the town, viewed as elitist).
We first see “our hero” (more on that later) David (Thomas Jane) in the very first shot. He’s an illustrator of movie posters: I spotted three shout-outs to genre movies both actual and potential: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Stephen King’s own Dark Tower. He’s a macho, badass painter, using the back of his own hand as a palette, and bitching about studios cobbling together cheap posters in Photoshop.
Speaking of craven movie studios, sometimes studios whitewash action and horror movies to cater to more lucrative PG-13 audiences (like Blade III: Trinity, extraordinarily lame & tame compared to Guillermo Del Toro’s outrageously gory Blade II – vampire autopsy, anyone?). The Mist is one of the few R-rated horror movies I’ve seen that might have been better with less gore and profanity. Most especially the profanity – I’m certainly guilty of salty language in my own vocabulary, but the overall F-bomb count in The Mist is so absurdly high that it almost seems as if the filmmakers were deliberately striving for a record.
Overall, I’d have to say I really did not care for the movie, finding it overwritten. At numerous points, characters explicate the plot, elapsed time, and character arcs – to paraphrase an example: “It’s only been two days, and Mrs. Carmody has already turned everybody against us… in only two days!” It’s also too reliant on CG gore for a story than depends on the horror of the unseen (also where M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise great Signs falls down). But the best bits of the movie are squeezed between the CG set pieces, and the entire affair is redeemed by an utterly astonishing ending. Although I normally don’t concern myself with spoilers on The Dork Report, it would be cruel of me to reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, it’s impossible to imagine how a script this bleak was financed and distributed (by Dimension Films). I also wish I had seen the movie in theaters so I could see firsthand how an average audience would react to such an ending. The big downer at the end of Cloverfield did not go over well, to say the least, and The Mist makes that one look positively wimpy.
Like Signs and Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, The Mist depicts a massive alien invasion from the perspective of regular folk, as opposed to the global view taken by movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Independence Day. But The Mist has a truer ending than any of these examples. The core theme is of the roles people assume under extreme duress. Their illusions about themselves are amplified and they believe their own myth. Just as the fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody compensates for a lifetime of exile from healthy human interaction by elevating herself into a demagogue (I’m reminded of the characterization of the young Adolf Hitler in the movie Max, as he first finds the mass adulation he desires as he rallies a crowd into a racist frenzy), David falls all too well into the role of hero; he never complains when people turn to him for strength and leadership. The so-called “hicks” that fight him in the beginning of the film were right; he does think he’s smarter than everybody else. In movies, he’s exactly the kind of guy other characters automatically defer to in dire situations: So-and-so’s dying of third degree burns? Tell David! What do we do next? Ask David!
The utter demolition of the stock hero character type is so surprisingly strong that it’s practically subversive. I had thought Postmodern genre films had petered out after their late-90s golden age of Scream, Starship Troopers, and Wild Things. But The Mist is a new entry in the Postmodern genre cycle, in the sense that it comments critically upon the horror movie genre, and yet still actually is a horror movie. The Mist may be a monster movie, but it’s not about a Thing, an Alien, or a Creature from the Black Lagoon; it reveals the standard hero character to be a kind of monster himself.
It’s hard to believe now, but The Shawshank Redemption was a relative flop at the box office, and overlooked in all seven of its Academy Award nominations (losing the 1994 Best Picture to Forrest Gump). But true to its own themes, it found redemption late in life, on television and home video. It regularly tops the running popularity poll in IMDB.com, but has the reputation for never being taken very seriously by critics. In the Charlie Rose Show interview included among the DVD bonus features, director Frank Darabont pierces the legend that the film was poorly reviewed. The four or five most widely read papers in the country did pan the film (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times being a notable exception), but nationwide, the contemporary reviews were highly positive. Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, a British television documentary also included on the DVD, posits the theory that any critical disdain is attributable to its conclusive happy ending. The original novella and Darabont’s screenplay adaptation both end on an ambiguous note of hope, but the studio Castle Rock specifically requested a concrete happy ending. Darabont still seems to have mixed feelings about the inserted coda, but there’s no doubt it gives its appreciative audiences massive satisfaction and uplift.
Despite the movie’s wild popularity, it doesn’t seem widely known to be an adaption of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (a clunky title without even a “The” to aid in its scansion). It’s an atypical work that deals not at all with the supernatural, but King’s highly characteristic voice does show through in the sharp plotting, monstrous villains, and hilariously colorful dialogue. Seriously, did anyone at any time or in any social milieu ever actually call anyone “fuckstick?” Like many of King’s filthy turns of phrase, if they didn’t, they should have. Of note, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was originally published with three other novellas in a single volume, Different Seasons. Two more became successful films: Apt Pupil (by director Bryan Singer) and The Body (as Stand By Me, by Barry Levinson).
The Shawshank Redemption has its share of warm fuzzies, but repeatedly counterpunches with frank representations of the injustice of prison life, including rape, brutality, and exploitation. One glaring area in which it appears to wimp out, however, is its failure to acknowledge race. Racial tensions must have been at least as much of a problem in 1930s-50s prisons as they are now, if not more so. The original character in the novella was a white Irish American, and Darabont reveals in the DVD bonus features that Morgan Freeman was an unconventional addition to the cast, an obviously correct decision they couldn’t pass up. Perhaps injecting racial themes into the script at that point would have been one theme too many for an already overstuffed movie, but they do percolate in the background. Red, for example, reflexively calls even the slightest authority figure “sir.” Not only does Freeman carry a wholly natural gravitas (I recall a review of March of the Penguins that described him as “America’s favorite narrator”) but Red & Andy’s friendship is made that much more profound for the effective irrelevance of their races.
While most Hollywood movies are structured around adversarial relationships between male antagonists, The Shawshank Redemption is a rare tale of deep, sincere male friendship. It could very well be the greatest man-love story ever told, able to bring a lump to the throat of even the most macho of viewers.