Life in confinement: anything but a picnic. (image source)
Room is not a pleasant movie. It’s brutal, heartbreaking, disgusting, and shocking. The fact that similar stories have occurred in reality only makes it all the more unnerving. And yet, thanks to two graceful lead performances, the ably nuanced directing, and the studied cinematography, the movie succeeds in overcoming these base horrors to make a uniquely cathartic and moving film. It’s a work of heartrending beauty that deserves to be seen and remembered.
Just thinking about the plot of Room gives you shudders. Joy (Brie Larson), affectionately called “Ma,” was barely seventeen when “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) tricked her into entering his house, where he promptly kidnapped and forced her into his garden shed. At the start of the movie, she’s been living there for five years, completely cut off from the outside world, dependent on her temperamental captor for food, medicine, and even basic heating. She also gave birth to a child, the inquisitive, painfully naive Jack (Jacob Tremblay). We quickly come to realize from watching Jack’s behavior – he says “hi” to the sink and draws a blank at basic words like “backyard” and “tree” – that he knows nothing of the world beyond the shed. In an effort to protect him, we learn, Joy has taught Jack that the “Room” and all its assorted possessions are the limits of the world.
Of course, such a lie can only hold for so long. Jack eventually catches on that there’s something beyond the walls of the shed, something beyond the muck-covered skylight and the door that’s mysteriously locked all the time. Eventually, his incessant innocent questions about how mice enter the room and leaves fall onto the skylight propel Joy out of her resigned agony. With pent-up desperation, Joy spills the truth of her story onto Jack and starts hatching schemes to get them both out of the place. None of them is fail-safe: they all depend on “Old Nick” behaving properly, an unreliable assumption at best. And if “Old Nick” figures out what’s going on, the result could truly spell Joy’s end. But, to the relief of everyone watching, her plans finally pay off, after several spellbinding sequences of Jack escaping and calling for help that’ll have you chewing straight through your nails.
Any approach to filming a story as gruesome as Room would be difficult to sit through. But relatively unknown director Lenny Abrahamson has done a remarkable job in creating “artful pain” – pain that disturbs without being indiscriminately repulsive. For this effect, he owes much to cinematographer Danny Cohen’s careful camerawork. Life in one garden shed would seem unendurable, Ma’s daily cycle of rape and abuse too difficult to behold. But Cohen makes it bearable by depicting it all from the perspective of young Jack. With just the right number of close-ups, he masterfully places us inside the limited confines of Jack’s worldview, where every last nook and speck of dust in the “Room” becomes a fascinating object to explore, every chair and sock a new, peculiar personage in this rich world of trinkets and gadgets. At night, when “Old Nick” returns from work to manhandle Ma, we only hear the shouts and groans through the slits in the closet, where Ma has placed the blissfully unaware Jack out of harm’s way. The camerawork gets so good that we almost recoil in shock when we return to the “Room” one last time at the end and Cohen shows the place as it really is: a dirty, rundown, ridiculously tiny pothole of a “home.” It all serves the intense dramatic irony of the first part of the movie; we know exactly what Ma’s suffering entails, but Jack shows one too many times, in arguments and stubborn declarations, that he has no idea what she’s going through. And it’s this, more than the menacing presence of “Old Nick,” that ends up shaking us the most.
Cohen’s expert manipulation of the camera would already make this worth a watch. But Abrahamson goes one further with the way he structures the second half of the movie, the part that deals with the less-than-thrilling aftermath of Ma and Jack’s escape. In choosing to stick to a true-to-life depiction of Ma and Jack’s long, tortuous road to psychological recovery, he thankfully steers away from crowd-pleasing clichés. We never see “Old Nick” face justice, for example. And Ma’s family, far from being quick to envelop her in tearful, overjoyed embraces, starts lashing out with accusations and simmering grudges mere days after her “triumphant” return. The scars of confinement and abuse, we see to our sadness, don’t go away that easily; the subsequent trauma, guilt and shame can be every bit as wrecking. Here, Abrahamson treads a careful balance between resilience and resentment. He never hesitates to remind us of the grim challenges to recovery, but always takes care to highlight our inexhaustible capacity for hope and optimism. Although he can get a bit caught up in his own drama – towards the end, the movie suffers a tad from the “it should end here” syndrome – the caliber and finesse of his handling more than make up for it.
Finally, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give two majestic performances. Tremblay displays an astounding maturity and depth for an actor who doesn’t even know what puberty means. Without even trying, he’s able to hold a compelling screen presence, thanks to the effortless purity of the emotions he throws into his part. He manages to perfectly capture the mix of bratiness, innocence, disillusion, and disorientation that together form the many kaleidoscopic facades of Jack’s personality. You barely realize this guy has next-to-nothing in terms of acting experience. As for Larson, for once, adjectives and superlatives fail. Incredible, marvelous, stunning, moving, tear-jerking, inspiring, flawless, soulful…we could go on. She puts herself into the spirit of this abused, mistreated person and renders her so believable, so palpable, and so easy to connect with. Anything but a weepy, melodramatic, mushy-gushy performance of victimization, her interpretation is an excruciatingly authentic portrayal of empowerment against all the odds. Watching Larson’s struggle to survive will not just convulse you emotionally, but will leave you rejuvenated even on a spiritual level. Of the recent Oscar-winning actresses, her performance stands high and mighty above almost all of them.
Room is a tremendous experience. The feeling you get when the credits start to roll is one of complete liberation, almost as if you yourself had traveled down the grimy twists and turns of Ma’s story and come out alive. It’s a dark tale that eventually finds joy in the most abject of suffering. Don’t watch this if you’re looking for light fare. But if you’re ready to deal with the intensity of this movie’s material, you’ll find the experience deeply rewarding and almost ennobling. It’s rare to find such honesty in film-making. We should all cherish the story Room has so beautifully given us.
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay
Running Time: 118 minutes
Produced by: Ed Guiney, David Gross
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: Emma Donoghue
Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name.