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‘Doctor Sleep’ Wrestles With the Legacy of Our Bad Dad Jack Torrance

Jack Nicholson’s villain from ‘The Shining’ has long been celebrated as an iconic horror-movie character. This sequel is a sobering look at what that abusive monster did to his son

(Warning: This article contains spoilers about the ending of Doctor Sleep. If you don’t want to know what happens, do not read this. Maybe you’d be more interested in the fascinating cultural legacy of Deliverance’s rape scene, instead.)

One of the signs of maturity is realizing that Jack Torrance is a terrible person. Because he’s played in the film by Jack Nicholson, an eternal symbol of outsider cool, the villain of The Shining exudes an over-the-top swagger that’s made the character magnetic since he first graced screens back in 1980. Darkly funny, unpredictable and shamelessly entertaining, Jack will descend into madness and try to kill his family, but Nicholson has such a ball playing him, it’s easy to get off on Jack’s homicidal lunacy. Sure, he’s an ax-wielding psychopath, but he sure is fun company.

Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining, is a mixed bag — thought-provoking but also sorta hacky — but it has no illusions that Jack might be cinema’s worst father. Nicholson isn’t in the new film, but his presence haunts it — specifically in the form of Danny (Ewan McGregor), the little boy in The Shining who’s all grown up and still deeply troubled. Because Nicholson dominates The Shining with his unbridled energy, we tend to focus on him. Doctor Sleep turns out to be a critique of our fascination with Jack — it’s a movie about the permanent damage he did to his boy. Jack’s been dead for decades, but he’s still inflicting harm on his son from beyond the grave.

Both the Shining and Doctor Sleep novels were written by Stephen King, who has famously loathed Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation for years. In 2014, Rolling Stone asked King about his beef with the movie version of The Shining, and here’s what he said:

“In the book, there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little, he moves over to this place where he’s crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene. … And [the movie is] so misogynistic. I mean, Wendy Torrance is just presented as this sort of screaming dishrag. But that’s just me, that’s the way I am.”

I don’t feel any need to relitigate this debate. (I will say, however, that Shelley Duvall, who plays Wendy, is absolutely brilliant and heartbreaking as a woman so traumatized by her husband that she’s become one big, raw nerve-ending — so afraid to set off Jack that she tiptoes through life like she’s trapped in a permanent minefield. She is absolutely not a “screaming dishrag” — she’s a battered wife who’s in denial.) But what’s always bothered King is that Movie Jack is a loathsome, arrogant man before the film even begins — there’s not a lick of goodness in him. The tragedy that King imbued into Book Jack is gone — which might be one of the reasons why Movie Jack, despite being horrible, is so compelling to watch. Nicholson is devilish and hammy. He makes being evil look so damn fun.

The movie for Doctor Sleep could be seen as a response to Kubrick’s — or rather, an indication that a lot of us recognize just how horrible Movie Jack was all along. The Danny of Doctor Sleep has wasted his life. He still has the ability to “shine,” but he’s an addict and a fuck-up, almost as if he’s slowly trying to kill himself in drips and drabs because he doesn’t have the gumption to simply commit suicide. Danny takes a long time to acknowledge it, but anyone watching the new film will understand instantly: His father has done a number on him. And even though Danny would hate the thought, he’s running the risk of turning into him.

Horror has a history of pathetic fathers, and so it’s perfect that Doctor Sleep has been directed by Mike Flanagan, who last year remade The Haunting of Hill House, which starred Henry Thomas as the ineffectual patriarch of the cursed Crain clan. In Doctor Sleep, Flanagan has to contend with a pedestrian X-Men-y storyline — Danny discovers that there’s a cult that feeds on the life essence of those with “shine” — that involves feuding characters with superpowers battling one another. None of that is particularly interesting. The film really resonates, however, when Danny struggles to get sober, letting go of the hold that his father has on him. Externally, he’s fighting cult members, but the real combat is going on within.

Movie Jack had a certain flair — those animated eyebrows, that cocky delivery — but all of that merely masked his issues. Early on in The Shining, we learn that Jack is a drinker and that he’s hurt Danny — Wendy never says it, but it seems clear he abused her, too — and so the original movie was a disturbing snapshot of a toxic home environment. We all know the statistics: Children of alcoholics are significantly more likely to become alcoholics, and abused children can suffer in adulthood from emotional distress and even PTSD because of their upbringing. Doctor Sleep chronicles the son’s buried trauma, illustrating The Shining’s psychological aftereffects. (In that way, it’s similar to last year’s Halloween, which was clear-eyed about its horrific serial killer and concerned with how Laurie Strode has learned to cope with the fallout of her deadly encounter with him.) Danny drinks because he wants to shut off his “shine,” but he’s also following in his father’s footsteps. He drinks because he’s not strong enough to do anything else.

In a sense, Doctor Sleep is the story of how Danny finally makes peace with Jack. Not only does he stop drinking, he gets the chance a lot of adults would kill for — he will confront his long-gone father about his terrible childhood. Much like Ad Astra, Doctor Sleep concerns a son chasing after his dad — both younger men can’t rest until they get some closure with the patriarch who warped them. Brad Pitt’s eventual reunion with Tommy Lee Jones is deeply affecting, but the confrontation in Doctor Sleep might be even more moving, as Danny returns to the Overlook, walking into the same hotel bar that Jack did so long ago. And who does Danny see? It’s his father — played by Henry Thomas, made up to look eerily like Jack in The Shining. Flanagan seems to be telling us something by casting his Haunting of Hill House dad in that iconic role. Like Hugh Crain, Jack Torrance is a man of big words but little follow-through — both are little men exposed as failures.  

At its finale, Doctor Sleep gives us a new way of seeing Jack, and it’s through his angry, scarred son’s eyes. For generations of film fans, Jack has been a sort of dark antihero — a more sophisticated monster than those slasher fiends like Freddy Krueger, but still a baddie you love to hate. Flanagan, though, asks us to consider the abused rather than the charismatic abusers. Because despite what King says, Kubrick’s The Shining has always been about a wretched soul who does incalculable damage to his family. Doctor Sleep is about what surviving that emotional carnage looks like.

Here are three other takeaways from Doctor Sleep….

#1. Remember when Stephen King had a column about pop culture?

As we prepare to close the book on the 2010s — by the way, nobody calls it “the Tens,” do they? — the first decade of the 21st century (“the Aughts”) feels even farther away. If you need proof of what a distant memory the Dubya years are, consider this: Stephen King had a pop-culture column for Entertainment Weekly back then. Crazy, but true. 

The column had a great name: “The Pop of King,” a clever reversal of Michael Jackson’s self-bestowed moniker. In the column, the popular horror novelist would just riff on whatever interested him. He’d rip on Kill Bill while extolling the virtues of Mystic River. (“Ten years from now, you’ll be hard put to remember what [Kill Bill] was about or who was in it. Mystic River, on the other hand, will burn itself into your memory,” King wrote.) He’d muse about “the art of the blurb.” (“After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of [a glowing blurb from a famous person], you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust.”) He proudly declared that he wasn’t some, gasp, critic, and yet he’d write cultural criticism — a move that always amuses me. (Trying to hold yourself at arm’s length from a profession because you have disdain for it while engaging in that profession’s primary act is just a weird look.) “The Pop of King” was endlessly nutty because it was so very much Stephen King.

The author hasn’t written the column for years now. But thankfully, there’s Twitter, where he does bite-sized versions of his takes on all things pop culture.

His random taste is still very much in evidence. And the pithiness of the platform allows King to drop enticing little morsels of insight, even when he doesn’t proofread before hitting “send.” 

Plus, Twitter gives him the opportunity to be spectacularly pissy, which gives his followers a chance to do something they couldn’t back in the “Pop of King” days: respond directly to him.

When people see King in person, I really hope they say, “Hang in there, buddy” to him.

#2. If you see one movie this year about a woman with powers, make it ‘Fast Color.’

In Doctor Sleep, Danny starts getting strange communications from Abra, a girl who also can “shine.” Played by newcomer Kyliegh Curran, Abra is very much like so many characters we now see in superhero movies: the precocious young person blessed/cursed with strange powers. Ever since Spider-Man drew the connection between adolescent angst and supernatural skills, it’s become a pretty common film trope that odd/different/weird/tortured protagonists are extraordinary because they can fly or bend things with their mind or shoot lightning bolts or whatever.

That doesn’t mean enterprising filmmakers can’t come up with variations on the formula. And so, I’d like to recommend Fast Color, a smart indie from earlier this year about a seemingly ordinary woman, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who’s trying to keep the outside world from finding out she has superpowers. Pursued by the government and scientists, she returns to her rural family home, where her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter (Saniyya Sidney) live. Turns out, all the women in the family have these same powers, but rather than making them special, it makes them a target.

Set in a bleak near-future where water is scarce, Fast Color approaches its sci-fi storyline with a stripped-down realism. The effects are minimal — there aren’t laser blasters or cool spaceships — but director Julia Hart crafts a story of female empowerment that does a good job of world-building, heightening the suspense as the plot rolls along. Not unlike Terminator: Dark Fate, Fast Color celebrates a group of women who have to rely on themselves to fight a patriarchal society.

Mbatha-Raw, who was recently seen in A Wrinkle in Time and Motherless Brooklyn, is terrific as an imperfect mother and daughter trying to protect her family while wrestling with the fact that she’ll never be able to stop running. For people who dig low-budget sci-fi with brains, Fast Color is worth catching.

#3. You can watch ‘The Shining’ backwards and forwards simultaneously. I don’t know if you should, though.

I’ve never tried to watch The Wizard of Oz while syncing it up to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. My rationale: I like the movie, and I like the album, but I don’t think I need to experience them at the same time. Whatever marginal random surprises might arise from seeing them simultaneously would probably be negated by the amount of tedium waiting for cool audio/visual connections to appear.  

I feel the same way about The Shining: Forwards and Backwards, a video project dreamed up by editors John Fell Ryan and Akiva Saunders, who wanted to prove that the Kubrick film could reveal new meanings if you watched it forwards and backwards simultaneously. Because this is copyrighted material, they’ve had a hard time keeping the video on the web before Warner Bros. has it taken down, but the experiment is currently streaming on The Sync Book. And a few random clips have made their way to YouTube.

These kinds of nerdy down-the-rabbit-hole video projects are typically my jam. I found out about Forwards and Backwards thanks to Room 237, the terrific 2012 documentary that compiled all the wildest fan theories about The Shining’s secret meanings. (For instance, is the film Kubrick’s elaborate apology for helping NASA fake the 1969 moon landing?) But although Ryan and Saunders did uncover some cool superimposed images, I confess that I’ve never been able to watch any segment of Forwards and Backwards for more than five minutes. And the simple reason is that, frankly, it’s weird to watch a movie forwards and backwards — even one as fascinating as The Shining. All that extra visual information just gets in the way, making for a distracting, frustrating experience.

And yet, Forwards and Backwards remains a beloved cult item. I slot this into the same category as the Memento reedited into chronological order” video or the Pulp Fiction reedited into chronological order” video: I’m glad someone went to all this trouble, but that doesn’t mean I have to think it’s necessarily profound.