When “The Shining” came out in 1980, critics panned it as one of Stanley Kubrick’s weaker works, the product of a brilliant director coasting. But it has since attracted a cult following and today’s critics view it as one of the premier horror movies of American cinema.
“Room 237,” a new genre-defying documentary, examines “The Shining” and the unusually high amount of theorists who find hidden meanings in it. Many say that Kubrick hid carefully calculated subliminal messages throughout the film—a reversal of the camera angle here, a can of food with an Indian chief on it facing there—telling tales of genocide, time, and faked moon landings. The piercing psychological style of the interviews with these theorists made me think seriously about movies, and the larger question of interpretation itself, in ways that few films have.
Interviewees paint a picture of Kubrick as deliberately playing with us, a director who read extensively on the power of hidden messages and the horror of the Nazis before the film. I came in skeptical but conscious of the many subtle, yet seemingly deliberate inconsistencies—a shot that pans back up to show the character wearing a different shirt, a typewriter changed to the German model, an entire room reversed. The idea of the film’s layered meanings rings especially true when interviewees note that Kubrick obsessively rearranged furniture and props on his movie sets.
The interviews are underscored with an eerie soundtrack and paired with clips from “The Shining” or scenes gathered from a huge swath of American pop culture. When I saw familiar images from movies, the feelings I had felt watching them were naturally echoed back at me, amplifying the persuasiveness of director Rodney Ascher’s interviews.
In my interpretation—and “Room 237” will inspire countless—Kubrick was deliberately painting a picture of the way we isolate ourselves from horrible acts in the world. The amount of Native American, Nazi, Jewish, and slaughter imagery in this movie is undeniable. And as one of the ideas perpetuated in the movie—that none of the characters believe any of the horrors around them are real, that they’re just “pictures in a storybook” makes me think that part of the movie is about the way we look at genocide. At our innermost levels, we still can’t treat it as something real. It is not what is shown but what isn’t shown that makes “The Shining” so eerie and enduring.
Though many of the interpretations put forward in “Room 237” may not even touch on Kubrick’s intentions, they still strike chords that aren’t out of the realm of possibility. In that way, you could say that even the false interpretations are wrong, that the definition of truth in interpretation is really relative.
While the film prompts reflection on “The Shining” and what can be drawn from it, it’s also genuinely fun to watch. Go with some friends and form your own thoughts on it—you won’t regret it.