Inconsistency as a Film Technique: Three Times Kubrick Gaslights the Viewer

The abusive behavior term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 film, Gaslight. In it, a husband isolates his wife from family or friends, flickers the gas lights in their home, moves objects, and insists to his wife that she is suffering from delusions. He does everything he can to convince his wife that she is going insane, under the guise of genuine concern. Eventually, she believes in his good intentions and gives in to the idea that she is suffering from mental collapse. After she is shut away in a mental hospital, he searches through her belongings to steal valuable jewels she has recently inherited from her aunt.

In Gaslight, the inconsistencies are central to the plot. The characters within the film note visual inconsistencies and it becomes a driving force in the movie. Yet some films choose to use this tactic in an attempt to create a sense of unease in the viewer. They create a sense of something not quite right, an uncomfortable feeling that the viewer will sense but likely be unable to name. Particularly fond of this technique is Stanley Kubrick, well known for breaking the fourth wall through extended up close and personal shots with the characters.

  1. The ShiningIn Kubrick’s game changing horror movie, he focuses on creating inconsistencies in the Overlook Hotel. There are windows where there shouldn’t be, doors that lead to nowhere, and rooms that spontaneously change location. While at first take this seems to be mere production error, it’s really a meticulous attempt to make the viewer feel unsettled. Unless someone is really looking for it, the inconsistencies in the organization of the hotel isn’t apparent, but just enough to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. All those scenes of little Danny riding around the impossible space on a tricycle really push it over the edge.
  2. A Clockwork Orange
    Items tend to spontaneously rearrange themselves throughout the film, hopping locations when the viewer is least suspecting it. One of the best examples of this is in the sped-up scene in Alex’s bedroom, where the bed sheets spontaneously rearrange themselves. In a scene where Alex’s gang gets into a scuffle with Billy Boy, several droogs lose and regain their hats several times. To show his destabilization after he has received his treatment and been released from prison, he is shown standing by the River Thames, where the tideline changes several times.
  3. Full Metal Jacket
    For a film about war, Full Metal Jacket feels uncharacteristically light, with the most intense scene being a boot camp suicide. Though the film is set in wartime, the viewer has a sensation that no harm will actually come to the primary characters, that they are more like children playing war games. This is then reversed during the sniper scene, where we see three soldiers shot down in a short amount of time. There’s a disconnect from reality here, and it’s emphasized in the ruin. In one scene the sniper shoots at a pillar behind a character, then in the next shot the pillar is intact again. When the sniper is shot, we see blood on her face, but when she’s on the ground again her face is clean. Throughout the film, things are destroyed, blood is shed, but then they spontaneously repair themselves. This allows the violence in the film to maintain a light feeling similar to a video game.
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