'Room' Finds A Mother And Son In Isolation
Five-year-old Jack has an active daily routine in the place he simply calls "Room," where he and his Ma can't take more than a few paces in either direction without hitting a wall. He's happy here, worshipping sparse comforts like the dying bedside plant, the TV, and the snake he's made out of eggshells. But while the camera tracks his movements with rotations that betray the smallness of the space, our eyes look for different things. We try to spy an exit and see only dark, grey walls, with a steel door firmed shut.
This is how we know, as Jack does not, that Room is the modern nightmare. It's the Elisabeth Fritzl place, the Jaycee Dugard place, the place that held the three women in Cleveland. It's the address where evil men imprison and hold domain over women for years without detection, often right under the noses of the people looking for them.
Describing what happens in Roomwould be a spoiler minefield, albeit one that even a glance at the IMDb cast list would reveal. But if any of those earlier names rang a bell, then you can probably fill out the stomach-churning backstory in your head before the film does. Ma (Brie Larson) was kidnapped seven years prior by a deep-voiced, thickly bearded presence she and Jack call Old Nick, who holds her in his windowless woodshed and rapes her regularly while Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the product of one of these rapes, hides in the wardrobe. And Jack is only happy here because Ma sacrifices everything to make sure he stays healthy, hopeful, and—most of all—ignorant.
Emma Donoghue's bestselling 2010 novel on which the film is based drew inspiration from kidnapping cases like Fritzl's, with children of rape born and raised in captivity. When the book was published, the Cleveland women were still being held prisoner, and there are surely more nightmares like theirs that remain undetected. The surfacing of such stories forces Room to mind the gap between the kind of heartrending small-child drama that tends to win awards and the tabloid terror of real life. It's like the gap between the security Jake feels in Room with Ma and the brutal awareness that awaits him in the outside world.
But the film doesn't always handle this divide well, even though Donoghue also wrote the screenplay. Jack's limited viewpoint, a vital part of the novel, brings whimsical phrases and flights of fancy (they try screaming for help so that "the aliens can hear us"). When literalized onscreen, with Jack's narration about "Meltedy Spoon" and lots of close-ups of his bright, cherubic face staring up at "Skylight," this child's-eye view of horror can feel too cloying and cute for the subject matter. Remember Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which pitted a precocious youth against 9/11? Room isn't quite that, but, as Ma might say, they live on the same planet.
Still, the film's uncertainty about itself shouldn't obscure what it does well. Roomis divided into two distinct parts, and director Lenny Abrahamson, who also made the fantastic, memorably strange rock comedy Frank, builds an incredible tension for the transitional moment. Abrahamson has the ideal partner in his lead actress, who owns every bit of the film's emotional power. Brie Larson taps reservoirs not by showing what she's feeling, but by the opposite: hiding those feelings from her son. Anyone who saw her astounding work in Short Term 12, where she also knew the value of withholding herself from observers, won't be surprised by the caliber of her deeply internalized performance here. Tremblay, as Jack, has the delicate whispers and practiced vulnerability the film demands of him, though not much more.
Room flirts with a kid-friendly, claustrophobic love-conquers-all philosophy, but it at least has the conviction not to settle for one. Abrahamson largely refrains from sweetness in his resolution, preferring instead the messy, unspoken steps that come with rebuilding a life. The film goes on, in unsettling fashion, past the point when news media usually stop caring about nightmares like this. And Larson goes on with it, showing us that she never really leaves her Room.
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