Watching "Room 237" is like being stuck on an airplane next to a stranger hellbent on convincing you of his very detailed, very paranoid theory of the universe. Actually, it's like being stuck on a plane full of those guys, each with a different yet compellingly insane take on reality. And the in-flight entertainment features only one movie: "The Shining."
Rodney Ascher's documentary is a consideration of that 1980 Stanley Kubrick horror classic and what it means to a handful of people who have watched it a lot. We hear their voices on the soundtrack, chatting over images from the movie and patiently explaining just why the reclusive director intended the film as a cleverly encoded secret metaphor about the Holocaust. Or the genocide of the Native Americans by European settlers. Or the 1969 Apollo moon landing that Kubrick faked for the US government — what, you didn't know? — and for which "The Shining" was meant as a secret confession to the world.
It depends on who's talking.
And here you thought "The Shining" was just an expertly creepy Stephen King adaptation, directed by a master filmmaker, about a haunted hotel and the family man who becomes homicidally unglued there. To be fair, that's what most of us think. But "Room 237" isn't about most of us. It's about the human need for stuff to make sense — especially overpowering emotional experiences — and the tendency for some people to take that sense-making to extremes. It's about the need to insist on patterns where there are none and to believe that fiendish masterminds (in the government, in the arts, does it matter?) have thought it all out ahead of time for us to ferret out.
So one of Ascher's interviewees — we only hear their voices — excitedly explains that the rows of baking powder bearing the logo of an Indian chief in a kitchen scene are clear evidence that Kubrick meant "The Shining" as a lecture on America's Colonial sins. Another theorist cites the German typewriter on the desk of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and the recurrence of the number "42" as evidence of the director's preoccupation with the crimes of the Third
The one woman among those interviewed sees minotaurs everywhere in the film, including a ski poster on the wall that's pretty obviously not a minotaur. And the sweater worn by young Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) has a knitted Apollo 11 motif, damning proof (we learn) that Kubrick faked the moon landing, using the earlier "2001: A Space Odyssey" as an R&D project for the top-secret government charade. Don't believe it? Then why are there jars of Tang on the shelves in "The Shining"?
Ascher's stance toward his subjects is tricky and double-edged. He lets them narrate their crackpot fancies over images from "The Shining," other Kubrick classics, and random clips from the silent-era "Faust," Italian horror classics, Walt Disney's 1933 "The Three Little Pigs," and other sources. The director uses the visuals to hoist the theorists on their own over-analytic petards: When one of them insists Kubrick's image can be seen in the clouds of the film's opening sequence, Ascher steps us through the frames to show us, nope, Stanley's not there.
When an online "Shining" fanatic (who declined to be interviewed) suggests the only real way to decode the movie is to project it simultaneously backward and forward, "Room 238" obligingly does so. Some interesting visual echoes result but no smoking gun that the hotel proprietor, played by Barry Nelson, is a metaphorical stand-in for JFK or that his underling (Barry Dennon) represents someone from "a subdued race."
Ascher's longer attitude is one of benevolent weirded-out fondness. Who hasn't wanted there to be an explanation for everything — ever? That these people ascribe to Kubrick superhuman powers of intent, not to mention the forethought necessary to implant hidden meanings that would only be revealed by running his movie backward, is oddly touching. It's the same urge that had people wrecking their phonograph needles to prove Paul was dead or synching up "Dark Side of the Moon" with "The Wizard of Oz" — a worldview that shuns randomness, coincidence, and the haphazard (even boring) nature of artistic creation. "Room 237" is a deadpan entertainment that asks us to laugh at other people's nonsense while inviting us to marvel at the certainty of their faith.