3 out of 5
Directed by: Rodney Ascher
It starts out fascinating, guided through a seamless flow of narration and imagery by director Rodney Ascher, and then after a bit of obsessed chatter we suspect something’s awry and it gets a bit silly – in a good way! – before that same flow starts to work against things a bit, positing a question: is there a point to this?
How meta you want to get with that answer is perhaps dependent on your tolerance for conspiracy theories; Room 237 – a deep-dive into several interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, as told by voiceover contributors expositing particular points of view – is rife with thoughts along those lines, moving past analysis and into what may seem rather overwrought to a more casual viewer, finding assured significance in the smallest of details.
While it’s unavoidable to not find humor in some of what’s espoused (i.e. certainly that background poster in one scene is meant to symbolize an overarching theme), to Ascher’s credit in structuring Room 237, he does his best to just let his speakers speak, and not over-emphasize the silly. The presentation method used, which intercuts Shining clips with other Kubrick films (and other relevant clips – lots of Demons, interestingly…), often tweaked to better illustrate whatever’s being said, and then sometimes presenting graphics which help clarify certain points – lot of diagrams of the Overlook Hotel – is rather masterful: it’s a wonderful way around talking heads and static info, and makes the journey through these theories immersive rather than distancing due to their (from a certain point of view) bonkers sentiments; you could be convinced if you wanted to be.
…Though many won’t want to be, and that’s proven, from reviews / comments I’ve read, to be something of a barrier to entry: I wouldn’t view Room 237 as any actual attempt to understand The Shining anew. But it’s also not really about trying to understand these theorists, either, which is where it ultimately falls down, and also doesn’t engage those who come in with high regard for the movie, and doubts about whatever Ascher is / isn’t trying to say. Which, to me, isn’t ultimately anything except: aren’t these people interesting? However, that’s not a question that’s followed up on in any way. Again going a bit meta, you can say that the way the documentary daisy-chains theories – it’s not a linear presentation of one theory after another, but rather bits and pieces of each, given to us piecemeal – is meant to be as wayward as The Shining’s own narrative could be said to be; and I do think that successfully allows Ascher to extend this beyond a short into a feature. After about the hour mark, though, when it’s clear that we’re just here to listen, the effectiveness of that approach dissipates. By then, you’ve gotten the gist of each take (it’s about racism; it’s about The Holocaust; it’s about… architecture…), as well as a high level understanding of the extent of each speaker’s enthusiasms. What more is there? It seems telling that it’s only towards the very end that Rodney (or presumably Rodney, and the only time we hear him prompting someone) asks a narrator why Kubrick would bury things in the movie in such a complex fashion; the answer isn’t given much emphasis.
The music (by members of Clipping. and The Caretaker) has a flashy retro vibe to it; visually, Room 237 is never boring. But unlike its inspiration, it’s not something that can be viewed multiple times, nor does it really need to be watched from start to finish. With more of a thesis, or boiled down to a short, this would be a really powerful study, or more thoroughly compelling. As-is, it’s an interesting aside to a classic film.