Did you ever feel like you were crazy because you thought Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was subliminally about the slaughter of the Native Americans, and no one believed you? Or maybe you thought that it was symbolic of the holocaust? Or, most commonly, I’m sure you are in the camp that believes that Kubrick staged the Apollo 11 moon landing, and The Shining was an elaborate way for the director to admit his guilt without actually saying it, right? Yeah, it’s probably the last one. That’s obviously the most rational theory.
Well, if you said yes to any of those, then Room 237 is the documentary for you! Now you won’t feel alone. The doc highlights a handful of fan theories about The Shining, which they delves into in elaborate detail, and lets the theorists explain themselves the best they can. They have been given our full attention for once, now it’s time to see if they can convince us what they are saying has any validity. If the interviewees are correct, then The Shining is the most deeply interpretive film in the history of cinema. And it’s pretty fun (or funny) to watch these theorists go through the film frame by frame and try to give analysis on everything from cross dissolves to slightly altered set designs.
Yet, I can’t help but feel like they’re giving Kubrick way more credit than he deserves in a lot of cases. As masterful as The Shining is, plenty of the analysis is likely just coincidence. Especially when it comes to lining up shots during dissolves and the like. One guy decides to play The Shining while super-imposing the film playing backwards on top of it, just to see what imagery would show up. Some of it was really cool, like how Jack’s face lines up with the dead twins to give him the appearance of a bloodthirsty clown or something:
But much like all the theories in Room 237, they seem to be partial thoughts. All of the guy’s can point out really interesting things, but they can’t fully explain what they mean. And in the case of the forwards/backwards playing guy, he pointed out five cool shots or so, but he struggles to grasp their importance. And that’s in addition to the fact that the other 95% of the screening probably had uninteresting results.
I didn’t feel fully convinced on anyone’s theory. I mean, the meatiest theories made some pretty valid points, but they seemed more like paranoid theories as opposed to fun ones. The Native American idea was probably the most fully fleshed-out theory. The moon landing one seemed like a complete stretch from a conspiracy nut. And I feel like some things were just continuity errors. As brilliant as Kubrick was, I’m sure he’s just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us.
But Kubrick’s intelligence is the groundwork for why this documentary works at all. If he didn’t come across as cinema’s mad scientist, then no one would bother to even look into The Shining as such a richly deep film. I think Room 237 works first as an exploration into the mindset of Stanley Kubrick, and works second as an actual presentation of the theories.
I found everything about the geometry and geography of the hotel to be the most fascinating, because that DID in fact all seem intentionally done by Kubrick. I especially liked how they mapped out the courses of Danny’s tricycle rides, and how they talked about the mysterious, impossible window in Ullman’s office. That kind of stuff legitimately fascinated me. I was admittedly much more intrigued by the filmmaking theories, as opposed to the (probably) outlandish historical and thematic theories.
The style of the documentary also deserves some note. You never actually see any of the interview subjects on camera, which I found surprising. They also used a lot of repetition in the B-roll, which I’m sure was an homage to The Shining and Kubrick’s madness within the bounds of the documentary itself. I was scratching my head, however, that the footage used throughout Room 237 was from major Hollywood films… There were shots from Titanic and Schindler’s List (and many more), as well as basically every other Kubrick movie. Can they just use Hollywood film footage like that? Did they pay for them? That’s a question I’d like to get answered!
I would only recommend Room 237 if you are both a huge fan of The Shining AND are at all interested in the rest Stanley Kubrick’s bizarre methods. Just being a fan of The Shining will probably only get you so far with the ideas in this film. The more interesting aspect (in my opinion) is theorizing what was going on in Kubrick’s brain during his career. I actually liked the documentary overall, but mostly because it was so wild and outlandish. I fully acknowledge that most of the things presented to me were likely a stretch. Because, in what is likely the greatest argument against most of the ideas in Room 237: you could probably make up elaborate theories about any movie if you watch it frame by frame and have a vivid imagination.
7 out of 10