TIFF Review: Room 237

Room 237 (2012, directed by Rodney Ascher)

We've all been there. You're watching a movie and all of a sudden, bang! You get an epiphany about it. Maybe you were trying to figure out why the basement door always seemed to be locked and the knob was red, or why Kevin Spacey held his cigarette funny, and all of a sudden pieces start falling into place and it all makes sense. Or maybe you were talking with your friends after the movie and words tumbled out of your mouth that you didn't even know were there and you found yourself arguing that wait, no, the Gods Below are actually the audience, and it's their suspension of disbelief that needs to be maintained in order to keep them 'asleep' and stop the world/film from being destroyed.

What happens when you start telling your theory and your friends look at you like you're crazy, though? What do you do with your theory? Do you pack it away, or do you look deeper into the movie for more evidence to prove to them that you're right?

A doc about the obsessive/paranoid end of the cinephile spectrum, Room 237 could almost have been subtitled Kubrick Plays Itself. A group of people with very distinct takes on The Shining spin their theories exclusively in voiceover while film clips, mostly from the Shining itself but also drawing heavily from other Kubrick works like 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut as well as a wide range of other films, are used to illustrate the various points they're trying to make. The theories are, to be polite, a bit odd. One person thinks the film is about the Holocaust (cue the American Werewolf in London demon Nazis dream sequence), another about the genocide of native North Americans (cue the crying chief anti-littering ad). A third thinks it's Kubrick's admission that he was involved in faking the moon landing footage (not, the speaker stresses, that he thinks we didn't actually go to the moon. Just that the images we saw on television were faked on a sound stage. Cue the Capricorn One clips.) The impossible architecture of the hotel gets explored, as does the numerology of the rooms and the cars in the parking lot. Much is made of the psycho-sexual composition of the carpets. In fact each theory gets "supported" by a careful textual analysis of background details and apparent continuity errors that of course can't be accidents at all, but must have been deliberately placed there as clues by a mega-genius like Kubrick.

Yes, the film is funny and extremely well put together and the theories are barking mad, but the film does have something to say about the nature of film fandom and film criticism that might just hit a little too close to home for some, a message punctuated by the decision to never have Room 237's theorists appear on camera. Just as the lack of visual detail in a cartoon drawing of a person makes it more universal and easier to identify with, hearing only the voices of the speakers makes it that much easier to put yourself in their shoes. I can remember sending friends a long, detailed email in the lead-up to the release of Scream 3 "proving", beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Dewey was in fact the mastermind behind all the killings. (And I still think that theory would have made a better movie than the pile of shit Ehren Kruger actually gave us.) Really, if you are invested in movies beyond a certain point, you're going to have opinions and theories about specific ones that are, umm, outside the mainstream. The trick is understanding that they are just theories, and not letting yourself become too attached to any of them, because once you fall down that rabbit hole it's hard to find your way back out.

Room 237 is an entertaining and at times unnerving piece of work. It's an absolute must-see, whether you're a fan of Kubrick, the Shining or just of movies in general.