Stanley Kubrick ranks as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Part of that stemmed from his obsessive dedication to detail: planning each shot like an epic campaign and charting every square inch of onscreen space down to the tiniest fragment. That kind of fixation can seep out of his movies and into his fans, who pore over them with the same devotion with which he shot them. Room 237 is an ode to their passion, detailing a number of theories and suppositions surrounding Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining. It’s a heady trip down the rabbit hole, with ideas ranging from the intriguing to the flat-out nuts. But all of them speak to the hypnotic power of their source, and why it’s become such a compulsively watchable work.
It also speaks a little bit to my own ambivalent feelings about the film. I read Stephen King’s book before I saw it, and struggled with the changes Kubrick made to the story. I still find it a deeply flawed film, and said so in one of the first reviews I ever wrote (for my college paper shortly before an on-campus screening). I got no end of grief for it, and to this day, I probably wouldn’t change what I wrote… but I’ve come back to the movie at least twenty times since then. The Blu-ray sits on my shelf as I write this, and I can’t go longer than six months or so without taking it down to have another look. For a film that I can’t bring myself to “like,” its continued hold on me is a wonder.
Room 237 takes that brief meditation to an entirely new level. Using footage of the film (and many others) placed over voice-over interviews, it charts the theories developed by numerous fans over the course of multiple decades. They’ve poked in the film’s corners, analyzing every shot like the Zapruder film, and developed some startling conclusions from them. We never see the interviewees, and we really don’t need to. Their ideas speak for themselves.
The best of them help us look at the film in a different way: oblique references to the famous hedge maze, for instance, and the means by which Kubrick references them in subliminally clever ways. Others go a little further out there: The Shining as a metaphor of the genocide of the American Indians, the ways Kubrick visually thumbed his nose at Stephen King, or the notion of impossible turns in the corridors that make the hotel a dream landscape. The wildest notions make you stop short: mainly one that claims Kubrick helped fake the lunar landing and was subliminally trying to tell everyone about it here. It’s heavy-duty tinfoil hat stuff, complete with absurd leaps in logic delivered with unquiet certainty. But even the crazy ones carry a strength thanks to the movie itself. You can deny the theory, but you can’t deny the impact The Shining has on the theorist.
It also makes you want to pop the movie back in, and perhaps come up with some ideas of your own. The film’s density supports all manner of notions, many of which render it even more unsettling than its direct effect as a spook show. The Achilles heel lies in everyone’s assumption that everything is onscreen deliberately: that Kubrick has some plan in mind when he stacked those cans of Calumet baking powder in the pantry, or peppered the number “42” across the visual landscape. It’s only natural to make such assumptions, of course, but without the supremacy of that agency, a lot of the ideas fall apart. We’ll never know what Kubrick himself was thinking, though I’d love to know what some of the film’s other participants – Jack Nicholson, perhaps, or composer Wendy Carlos – think of these notions. Luckily, Room 237 doesn’t need them to hold our attention: a strange and enduring testament to Kubrick’s cinematic legacy, as well as a fun way to look at a horror classic in a whole new way.