'Room 237' Review: So Much WTF, So Little Time


You’ve never seen a film quite like Room 237.

It’s a documentary that illuminates few “truths” about its subject, instead hinting at bizarre theories and conjecture that are most likely, in the words of Leon Vitali, complete “balderdash.” Its film criticism translated to cinematic form, and the results are rarely short of fascinating.

The topic is Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining. For the four or five of you who are unfamiliar, here’s the plot rundown: Jack Torrance plus his wife and son become the off-season caretakers of the Overlook Hotel, an enormous intrusion plopped high in the mountains of Colorado. Jack plans to write a book, while wife Wendy and son Danny putz around doing all kinds of weird and boring stuff.

But Danny also has a problem (gift?): he can communicate telepathically, has horrifying visions, and frequently talks to a little guy living in his finger named “Tony.” It’s all creepy, but gets much worse once Jack starts losing his mind and tries murdering his family.

Kubrick’s films are notoriously visual exercises, giving audiences an incredible amount to absorb. But some viewers have taken it to another level: over the years, Shining fans have developed countless theories concerning the film’s “hidden meanings,” messages, symbols, and allegorical parallels. A small selection of these provides the backbone of Room 237, broken into nine parts and espoused by five interviewees (none of whom are seen onscreen).

Here’s what they have to say:

1. The Shining is about the genocide of the American Indians. The evidence? Just look at all the iconography in the hotel’s décor, and how it’s built atop “an old tribal burial ground.” When the blood pours out of the elevator? That’s the blood of dead Indians.

2. It’s about coming to terms with the Holocaust. For one thing, Jack uses a German Adler typewriter, a mechanism used to record the names of Jews who were later sent to concentration camps. Also, the number “42” (1942 being the year the Holocaust officially began) is everywhere: on Danny’s clothing, in the product of the titular numbers (2x3x7=42), and so on.

3. It’s all about sex. Note how the paper tray on the desk of the guy who first interviews Jack looks like an erect penis when they shake hands (yes, this guy was serious). This interviewee also did a cool thing where he played the film backwards and forwards simultaneously with the images superimposed on top of each other. I have to admit, the results are undeniably thought-provoking.

4. I was unclear about this one, but the lady they interviewed seemed very concerned with all the “impossible windows” in the Overlook. She’s actually created hotel maps and floor plans to back up her theories, and from what I could tell, she’s mostly correct.

5. Finally, The Shining is Kubrick’s artistic confession of how he helped the U.S. government fake the 1969 moon landing (or at least its televised version). Danny even wears an “Apollo 11” shirt in one scene, and he’s playing on a carpet whose design accurately mirrors the launch pads where the Saturn V rockets took off.

There's also the theory (noticeably absent from Room 237) that it's really just a heartwarming family comedy, but I'll leave that one to the experts:

In an early review, Chuck Klosterman accurately points out that these theories wouldn’t exist if people didn’t believe Kubrick was enough of an artistic genius to intentionally incorporate said themes. Perhaps it speaks to the aesthetic and thematic richness of his films that people draw so much from such a small bit of his cinematic output. And to be honest, who cares if its all true or not?

Either way, Room 237 provides a stimulating investigation into these questions, and should enjoy a wide viewership (especially among film aficionados) as a result. Hopefully we’ll see more of its kind in the near future.