On the surface, Room 237 looks maddening; a collection of, to put it lightly, unorthodox interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining. The movie itself is fairly well-crafted, aside from an overreliance on gimmicky images (images of frightened movie audiences while discussing scary scenes, etc.) The narration of the subjects is juxtaposed nicely over scenes from The Shining, without ever showing the people being interviewed, which is a nice touch. It lets the theories, however odd they may be, stand on their own, and gives the odd ideas an otherworldliness that's very appropriate. While the premise makes the film sound like an exercise in enduring crazy ideas, Room 237 ultimately emerges as a fascinating look at how people think and how our own biases and experiences shape our perceptions and interpretations of art.
The theories about The Shining put forth in this documentary range from the mildly quirky (one sees it as an allegory for the European genocide of Native Americans, another sees a metaphor for the Holocaust) to the downright bizarre (a metaphor for the myth of the Minotaur, and Kubrick's confession that he helped fake the Apollo moon landing).
As Chuck Klosterman writes in his take on Room 237, this type of approach, which he calls "immersion criticism", wouldn't work with just any film. But The Shining was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who was not only reclusive and non-forthcoming when discussing his work (leaving much open to interpretation without input from the source), but was also notoriously meticulous about what went on screen. Actors who worked with him have mentioned doing 60 to 80 takes of even inconsequential scenes (if they were lucky), and shoots that stretched far behind schedule (the shoot for The Shining took over a year). Very few actors worked with Kubrick more than once (Peter Sellers and Kirk Douglas are the only ones I can recall). This was a director who demanded that every detail in every shot be exactly to his liking. As a result, the theorists in Room 237 can be forgiven for finding perceived meaning in the little things.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that it serves as an insight into the thought and interpretation process. Kubrick's version of The Shining differs vastly from the original novel. Stephen King famously hated it, and, knowing this, one interviewee in the documentary puts forth one of the more convincing "hidden meanings." In the book, the car the Torrance family drives to the hotel was red. Kubrick has them in a yellow car, and while they're driving, they pass an accident on the road showing a red car badly damaged. This, the theory posits, was Kubrick's middle finger to King.
Something that's easy to lose track of while becoming oddly enthralled by all the theories (they're crazy, but you still want to see where they're going with it) is, all of the people interviewed are watching the same movie. The same images, dialogue and plot, interpreted in a variety of different and very strange ways. In a film, which is a combination of visual, literary and theatrical art, there are so many facets, any of which a viewer can latch onto and use as the bases of our interpretation of the film as a whole. Some people notice numbers; the Shining/Holocaust theorist concentrates in part of appearances of the number 42, including 237, which, when multiplied, equals 42. Others notice images; the Minotaur theorist saw a picture that looked like a minotaur in the background in one scene and latched onto it, the "Kubrick faked the moon landing" theorist sees a scene of Danny wearing an "Apollo 11" shirt and builds his notion from there. Sometimes, we see something familiar; the Shining/Native American genocide theorist sees a box in the background bearing a Native American caricature and the name of a river near where he grew up, and from there sees other Native American motifs throughout the film, and builds his theory. The concept of seeing/perceiving one thing and building everything else around it has a name, confirmation bias, and it seems to be an innate part of human thought process. But, as Klosterman says, in the case of The Shining, the conspiratorial ideas put forth don't do any real harm, unlike political conspiracy theories. It's just a way, he says, of going deeper into an already mysterious film.
When watching Room 237, I had two thoughts. One, I wanted to watch The Shining again. Two, I noticed something new about The Shining, the prominence of the color red. There's a scene in a red bathroom, red furniture, and several characters wear red. Kubrick, a highly visual filmmaker, must have planned that, probably because red is a dramatic color evoking blood, and The Shining is a story of horror and bloodshed. Or maybe, taking things to the extremes of the theorists, all the red was a sign that the film was an allegory of Communism, or another element in the theory about Native Americans (who were called "red men"). Viewers may mock the subjects of Room 237 for their absurd ideas, but going down the rabbit hole of interpretation is easier than we'd like to admit.