It’s a relatively new phenomenon for movies to comment on other movies. One of the most notable early examples is Quentin Tarantino’s rant from Sleep with Me where he argues that Top Gun is the ultimate homoerotic fantasy. Now even more and more characters in movies are passionate about the movies, and directors devote significant time to off-kilter deconstruction. Room 237, the fascinating and weird documentary from Rodney Ascher, takes this idea further by having real people unleash their bizarre theories on The Shining. Ascher takes several formal risks, and the payoff is a film that’s about much more than what his subjects are saying.
There are brief introductions to the five people who speak throughout Room 237, although we never really learn too much about them. One guy is a successful journalist, I guess, but some of the interviewees offer zero personal details. Our point of reference, then, is their respective theories on The Shining. Some are intriguing (one guy thinks the film is all about the American genocide of Native Americans, another thinks it’s about the Holocaust), while others are nuttier (the film is Kubrick’s atonement for helping fake the footage of NASA’s moon landing). The interviewees primarily rely on confirmation bias and throwaway imagery to confirm their theories: the odd placement of a can of food is what gets the ball rolling for one of them. But as they keep talking about all they find in The Shining, Ascher invites us to wallow in their obsession.
The brilliant thing about Room 237 is how we never see the faces of the theorists. They’re disconnected, only a voice, and after a brief introduction, Ascher mischievously cuts from one voice to another. They start to bleed together, connected only by their passion for the film. Instead of talking heads, Ascher uses footage from The Shining to provide a visual accompaniment to their arguments. A woman eagerly explains how one window in the Overlook Hotel is “impossible”: given the architecture of the ground floor, there’s no way the window could fill with so much light. Architecture is a big deal to these ideas. Ascher shows the long shots of Danny riding his Big Wheel through the Overlook, and a white line illustrates his path. This kind of deep reading is bewildering, and after a while, devotion is more important than the argument itself.
Ascher does not just show footage from The Shining. Sometimes he borrows from other Kubrick films to provide context to what his subjects are saying. In the opening shot, for example, Ascher chooses a scene from Eyes Wide Shut where a movie poster intrigues Tom Cruise’s character, except the director swaps in early posters for The Shining. He also borrows heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, using the memorable imagery as a Freudian companion to increasingly unhinged theories. For each of the subjects, there is a point where they completely lose it. A woman cannot understand one particular image, and then her kid draws something similar to that image, so the woman sees it as a “beautiful synchronicity,” as if that means anything. These interviews are so passionate that they cannot see beyond their own hang-ups, and I’d worry about them if they didn’t sound normal otherwise.
Room 237 is about as subjective as documentaries can get. Ascher never demonstrates any bias toward one theory, and we never even hear his voice. Instead, he constructs a masterful visual essay, one where voices and biased ideas overlap so the effect is nearly manic. The ultimate irony is that when the subjects saw the final product, they were probably infuriated, thinking, “My theory holds up better than that guy’s. He’s completely ignoring the significance of Danny’s sweater!” That’s what sad and a little poignant about hearing them speak. Ascher knows they’re admiring the trees but not forest, and still lets them talk until they lose their credibility. We’re left with five uneven theories, each weirdly compelling, and a newfound appreciation for how Kubrick’s unique eye for detail invites kookily detailed analysis.