“ROOM 237” (Movie Review)
Maybe you hold onto one yourself? Some pet theory about a particular film’s hidden patterns, symbolism, subtext or allegory? Undertones that fly past most viewers but, once uncovered and analysed, cannot be ignored? ROOM 237 (in select theaters and on VOD today) is a unique and deceptively simple documentary that features five different people attempting to explain what they perceive to be the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s film of THE SHINING.
The theories presented range from the outside of plausible (THE SHINING is Kubrick’s meditation on the Holocaust) to hilariously preposterous (Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is the Minotaur) to pots severely cracked (Kubrick was using the film to apologize for his participation in faking the moon landing?). All of the narrators are given ample time to explain themselves, and they sound calm and convinced as they lay out their arguments. Kubrick proves to be the ideal director for film obsessives to latch onto; the narrators invoke the legend of Kubrick’s famed meticulousness as proof that nothing included in the film is without purpose, or some cryptic intent. In this, THE SHINING serves as a sort of Rorschach inkblot, and the left-field leaps of logic made by the narrators to support their impressions are fascinating in a clinical sense—and, honestly, sometimes a bit unsettling.
With ROOM 237, director Rodney Ascher makes some brave and progressive choices in regard to how documentaries are most often presented, chiefly in eschewing any talking-head footage. Our narrators are never issued any biographical context beyond their names and are not once shown on screen; they’re simply disembodied voices transmitting their words and ideas into the atmosphere. The visuals are instead comprised of clips from THE SHINING as well as other, sometimes puzzlingly random movies (for instance, scenes of the cinema audience from Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS are spliced in under the narrators describing their own memories of seeing THE SHINING on its first release). The visuals are used to at turns illustrate, bolster, debunk and even playfully mock what the theorists are saying.
This is an interesting and dreamlike conceit, but it is Ascher’s usage of THE SHINING itself that truly, um, shines. It’s a display of impressively painstaking editing, with clips of the 33-year-old movie slowed down, sped up, superimposed and paused. The technique is mesmerizing; it feels like the filmmaker is subjecting us to a kind of hypnosis, using Kubrick’s film as his swinging pocket watch. To this effect, mention must also be made of the score by Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, a woozy retro-synth gem that snaps into place with Lego-block perfection alongside Kubrick’s clips.
Speaking over a running time of 104 minutes, ROOM 237’s narrators really do get to be too much. They numb you long past the point where, were you speaking to one of them in person, you would have politely excused yourself and wandered away to find more stable conversation. And Stephen King/Kubrick fans shouldn’t come to this film expecting to learn anything valuable about THE SHINING’s actual production, beyond the nitpicking of superfluous minutiae and the recounting of a few second-hand Kubrick stories. Really, ROOM 237 has little to do with THE SHINING; Ascher’s movie could just as easily have consisted of fans poring over Kubrick’s perplexing EYES WIDE SHUT, or even the theories surrounding some old STAR TREK episode. ROOM 237 is at heart a study of obsession, and Ascher’s involving and progressive visuals are a wonderful framework for it.