“Why would Kubrick make The Shining so complicated?” one fan asks another.
“Why would James Joyce write Finnegan’s Wake?”
Rodney Ascher’s documentary about the strange, weirdly convincing fan theories surrounding The Shining has been making waves since its debut last year. Some critics find the film bewildering, lending credence to soapboxers who are spreading paper-thin theories about an almost forty year old movie that don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but others are hailing the film as its own little jigsaw puzzle, rubbing all of its ideas together into some kind of hypnotic stew.
Room 237 follows five super-fans’ explanations as to what they believe to be the key to understanding Kubrick’s classic 1980 horror film. All five theories are completely independent from one another, drawing on different clues and scenes and contexts in order to find their own personal neuroses projected into a good movie by a great genius.
For example, one of the theories is that Kubrick made The Shining as a confession for staging the Apollo 11 moon landing. He shows us all of the clues, gives us the historical context, and tells us about Kubrick’s personal life in relation to the moon landing’s occurrence.
“What has been changed from King’s book?” the fan asks. “Why is there a maze in Kubrick’s vision? Why does Danny wear an Apollo 11 sweater right outside room two thirty-seven? Why would Kubrick change the number, when the original hotel doesn’t even have a room two seventeen? Maybe it’s because it’s exactly two hundred and thirty-seven thousand miles between the Earth and the Moon.”
Ascher never reveals the faces of his subjects. Instead, the entire documentary is made up of scenes from other movies. Most of the film is slow-motion cuts from The Shining, but Ascher throws in scenes from other movies as well.
The fans only exist as disembodied voices, making the documentary feel like a puzzle in itself. Ascher reveals the names of the fans, but only at the beginning, and as the film goes on, the voices become more intermingled, eventually resulting in what feels like one, overarching theory that transforms The Shining into a hotbed of ideas and themes and subliminal messages from the famously reclusive, brilliant filmmaker at the height of his genius.
The film turns one of the Kubrick’s “lesser movies” into a magnum opus, stretching the story and the setting into a cipher that can be understood as both everything and nothing.
One theory suggests that The Shining is a movie about America’s systematic destruction of the American Indians, and the guilt and fear that Americans must now live under as a result of the blood on our hands.
One theory claims Kubrick has made a movie about the Holocaust, citing tens of examples as to why this would be true.
Another theory focuses on Kubrick’s use of the maze and his retelling of the Roman story of the Labyrinth, complete with subliminal images of minotaurs and impossible architecture.
All of these theories are given a section of the film with which to make a compelling case for their understandings of the movie. As they describe certain scenes, the images play in front of us in extreme slow motion, moving frame-by-frame to give us a clear look at how they see it.
It’s hard to not be sucked in by the whole thing. The theories are just compelling enough to make sense, but just crazy enough to ask us for a leap of faith. But it’s impossible to deny the theories of any credence. The images are right in front of us, and there’s no mistaking Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail. He famously studied commercial psychology in preparation for The Shining, and the set was notoriously difficult to work on. Kubrick spent months researching Colorado history, months after that building a complete hotel in a soundstage, and even more months shooting and reshooting and reshooting scenes with an unsurpassed attention to detail.
So why, one man asks, would there be so many continuity errors in the film? Why would such a perfectionist with such control over his set and his actors permit any continuity errors to survive the final cut? He attempts to give answers to the question and many more.
Perhaps the most engaging and fascinating sequence of the documentary is one fan’s insistence that The Shining should be watching backward and forward simultaneously, both edits of the movie playing superimposed on each other. This section attempts to reveal secrets behind the meaning of the film by showing us how certain images overlap both literally and thematically.
Room 237 works because it believes everybody’s theories. It tries to reconcile The Shining’s obvious flaws with its director’s genius and perfectionism. Something has to be going on beneath the surface of this movie, but what coud it have been? What did this movie mean to Kubrick himself?
We’ll probably never know for sure, but Room 237 does its best to understand.
And while Ascher’s film may have benefitted from a longer cut, delving deeper into these separate theories, all of these people can be found online with extensive websites describing the meanings they’ve discovered in the film. The brief runtime may frustrate those looking for a more in-depth exploration of The Shining, but Room 237 isn’t really about that. It’s about obsession, but specifically and in general, and how a magnifying glass usually just reveals more questions.
Room 237 is available now on-demand and in select theaters.