Film Review: ‘Room 237′

In Rodney Ascher's feature debut, five conspiracy theorists present their readings on Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." Credit: IFC Midnight
In Rodney Ascher’s feature debut, five conspiracy theorists present their readings on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Credit: IFC Midnight

‘Room 237′
Director: Rodney Ascher
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 globes (out of 5)

Rodney Ascher’s feature debut is a talking heads documentary with no on-screen talking heads, all of them obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s horror touchstone “The Shining.” Five conspiracy theorists present their readings, the first being the most credible. As journalist Bill Blakemore recalls seeing the movie in 1980, we see Tom Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut” standing outside a movie theater and gazing at a poster for “The Shining,” the first of many image alterations and annotations throughout. Blakemore’s theory is that “The Shining” is actually about the genocide of Native Americans by colonial settlers, and he’s got enough evidence to make that reading plausible. “How come I saw this and a lot of other people didn’t?,” he wonders. It’s a frustration that will recur over the film.

All of the people speaking have intricate theories and flawless reasoning, but the nuttier examples argue towards a conclusion that’s impossible. Jay Weidner’s theory is the most self-evidently off: his argument is impeccable, except for the fact that it’s meant to prove that Kubrick staged Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and then felt guilty about it. Other logical chains, while less self-evidently off-base, build disconnected shots and continuity errors into full-fledged interpretations assuming mistakes were literally impossible for Kubrick to make.

Non-Kubrick movies used to illustrate arguments (there must be at least two dozen) serve a lot of different functions. At the start, Blakemore’s reminiscences transform him from Tom Cruise into Robert Redford in “All The President’s Men,” wandering into a parking garage and waits for Deep Throat to show up and tell him the truth about Watergate. In this jokey envisioning, a journey into the truth of “The Shining” is a quest to excavate information that’s been covered up.

These clips from other films suggest how a lifetime of casually watching movies (on TV, in theaters, in passing) help shape our minds. Meanwhile, Ascher acts as the sixth conspiracy theorist, stringing together Kubrick’s movies and offering ways to look at his work as a whole. “Room 237″ demonstrates by example that overinterpretation, even if misguided, is more fun than passively taking movies in. “There must be a lot of stuff in there that no one has seen yet,” one theorist muses, “so people should keep watching it.” “Room 237″ begins as a work about one movie, but along the way acts as a (fun!) argument for engaged viewing, strong film criticism and never getting lazy.


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