I’m hard-pressed to find a reason not to call Room 237 a proper documentary, but it really fails to feel like one. You could ask film scholars and critics their thoughts on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and fill a warehouse with the various responses. The fact that The Shining is open to interpretation is not news to anyone who knows film or to anyone who has seen the film. It’s Kubrick, and as with any Kubrick film there are layers. Look at A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, and especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and you will see the depth of his style. A proper documentary would have culled the best, most trusted film minds and let them loose on The Shining. But Room 237 instead focuses on the theories of, well, nobody’s. The faces of the interviewees are never seen, credentials are never given, and, aside from some vague chapter titles, the order and flow of the ideas are scattered. I think the film would have been more successful with a shorter running time, more anonymous interviewees, and less depth of examination of the individual theories. I know that sounds crazy considering the surface nature of this film but let me explain.
The idea of the film, as I had understood from marketing materials, was to examine nine separate theories about The Shining in an attempt to bring to light some of the subtext that may have gone unnoticed. While it does do some justice to the examination process using slow-motion and some interesting visuals, the ideas themselves are simply whacked out, if you’ll excuse the parlance. And the conviction with which they state their thoughts is vaguely inspiring, and quite honestly a little creepy. One woman purports the theory that Jack Torrance is a human Minotaur. Because Jack Nicholson tilts his head down and glares like a beast (hardly the inauguration of that look), and for one short scene there is a poster behind one of the characters that, to this woman, looks like a Minotaur. But only if you relax your eyes and squint really hard at the same time (the poster is of a skier, period).
Another interviewee conspires that the entire film is a visual hint from Kubrick that he worked with the United States government to stage the Apollo 11 moon landing. This man also believes he’s being watched by the government since he has successfully proven his theory, in his own mind anyway. Another believes there are subliminal messages and images airbrushed into the film, but he only gives us two examples. We have to find the rest on our own. Get it? These ideas are so convoluted that, even with a slow-motion presentation and a virtual freeze-frame of the photography I still couldn’t see it. Squint and relax the eyes.
To summarize some of the other ideas, another subject goes on and on about the impossibly-placed “magical” window in the manager’s office at the beginning, another about the assistant manager and his devious look, and yet another who superimposes the normal film over a presentation of the film in reverse and finds it interesting. Many of the ideas go nowhere and serve as more of a “isn’t that cool?” thought as opposed to anything with real depth. There’s way more than nine ideas being floated around and I think you get the picture by now. The theories lack any real substantive weight, thus disqualifying the film as a serious scholarly work. It is essentially an exercise in straw-grasping.
The one thing I think is great about this documentary is its ability to show what film can mean to different people. It’s obviously as essay on post-modern film theory, as is slightly touched upon at the end of the film. The subjective viewer can ascribe meaning to any single moment of a film and have that drastically altar the entire film for them. The one woman thinks she catches a glimpse of a Minotaur and before you know it the film becomes a mythological metaphor. That’s post-modern film theory for you, which I think is good and bad, but that’s a topic for another time.
For my buck, this documentary falls flat. It starts out interesting enough and then just spirals into boredom over the course of its 102 minute run-time. The film is less an examination of The Shining and more of a example of what the subjective mind can conjure up.