Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s book of the same name, Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, deserves the term “harrowing.” It is harrowing in its quiet, in its logic, in its patience. It is harrowing in its setting. It is harrowing in the fact that it forces you to imagine what it would be like, and, even more upsetting, how would YOU handle it? Empathy isn’t just “Oh my God, I feel so bad for that person.” It’s “I am forced into that person’s shoes, and it fills me with worry and dread, because I wonder how I would fare in similar circumstances.” Roomis not manipulative on any of these scores. The film’s opening energies are “everyday,” not “high crisis”: we see routines, we see breaks in those routines, we learn the rules of “room,” we understand every corner, every object, we experience daily life with “Ma” and son Jack (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay) in a slow crawl of horror and boredom. Because the story is seen (mainly) through the eyes of a 5-year-old boy, “backstory” is slow to come, although, as adults in the audience, we can guess. That gap in understanding (between his own understanding of his reality and OUR uneasy guess at why mother and son are locked in that room) fills the film with a sense of dread from the first moment. We know more than he knows. He thinks “room” is the world. He has never been outside of “room.”
To say more about the plot would be to destroy that horrifying empathetic experience. Even the trailer gives too much away about what happens later in the film. Room‘s opening hour is so claustrophobic, so upsetting (without any of the typical cinematic devices to “up” the ante – music, quick-cuts) that it will be tough to endure for some audiences. It is brutal. The room is the room. That’s it. There is no other space. There’s a ratty bed in the corner. There’s a wardrobe with clothes in it. There’s a tub and a toilet. There’s a sink, a fridge, and a tiny counter-top. There’s a skylight. And that’s it. Brie Larson said in an interview: “Nothing would be in there unless it had a reason to be in there. Why is it there? The rag that I’m cleaning the floor with are baby clothes cut up from when Jack was a baby.” Room has that level of detail in its props and atmosphere, and it’s felt by the audience in a visceral way. Her sweat pants. His little Underoos. The little saucepan. The washcloth. That horrible rug on the floor that will play such a huge part in the film. Stained. You know it stinks. It should be thrown out with the trash. But it’s all they have to cover the concrete floor.
Ma has been in “room” (that’s what they call it, no “the”) for seven years. Jack is five. As an audience member, you do the math, horrified. Because the film is through his eyes, it’s treated as a casual matter-of-fact, although if you keep a close eye on Ma, you can see the grim endurance there. She keeps their lives active, as much as possible. They do exercises together. They make things out of eggshells and toilet paper rolls. She cooks him a birthday cake. But as adults, we see everything on her face her son can’t see. Her skin is literally grey. Her eyes are dull. Her face is covered in pimples. Even when she smiles at him, the darkness flows out of her face. It’s so cold that you can see their breath, as they lie in bed together.
Seven years before, Ma (whose name is Joy Newsome) was abducted by a maniac whom Ma and Jack refer to as “Old Nick.” It’s the Jaycee Dugard situation. We never see “room” from outside in that first hour, so you don’t know where they are. Is it a basement? A garage? The door is steel, and there’s a key-pad that keeps it locked and she doesn’t know the combination. “Old Nick” shows up on occasion, bringing groceries. He forces himself on Joy, all as Jack lies at the bottom of the wardrobe, holding his toy truck, hearing the sounds “Old Nick” makes through the wardrobe walls. Joy submits. She has to. Unless Jack comes out of the closet, we don’t see “Old Nick” directly. Jack peers through the slats in the wardrobe, and we see a figure seated at the table, but there is only his back, his hands. Slowly, deliberately, the picture of their circumstance emerges. Jack does not like “Old Nick,” and feels protective of his mother, but other than that, his life is his life. There’s a TV in “room” and he watches “Dora the Explorer.” He draws pictures of a dog. But to him, there is no outside world. Ma has tried to protect him from realizing they are trapped, and so although she tells him about things like turtles and other things seen on the television, she makes sure to let him know that they are not real, they are just pictures on the screen. He buys it.
Until two things happen, one after the other: A mouse crawls out from beneath the refrigerator and Ma beats it back into the wall. And Jack turns 5 years old.
Those two events create an alchemy of connection that opens up a tiny space where Ma can make her move. There is no voiceover narration. We, the audience, are as stuck in their lives as they are. Whatever they think we have to guess. Whatever Ma’s plan is, we have to learn it as she tries to explain it to her son.
Watching Brie Larson play all of this is one of the most pleasurable (ironically) experiences I have had as an audience member this year. What an intense satisfaction there is in seeing an actress submit so fully to the imaginary reality, and to do so with such logic, such absence of fanfare, such humility. (I met Ms. Larson at Ebertfest, when she was there to present the wonderful Short Term 12, and she was such a homey presence, saying after she introduced the film, “I’ll be here for the next couple of days, so please find me and say Hi” … she didn’t just fly in for her film and fly out. She participated on panels, she attended panels, she went to the parties during the course of the Fest. She’s not just an actress “to watch.” She is literally one of the best things going right now. A stealth bomber kind of actress. Breaking in from beneath or from the side. Showing everybody else up, frankly.)
Ma is not perfect, or a brave martyr. She’s a young woman whose life has been stolen from her, who does the best she could for her son in horrific circumstances, who eventually realizes (almost in a flash, although you also get the sense that her son turning 5 was something she had in her mind all along as “the moment” when she would start to explain “room” to him) that it is up to her to try to save them both. When she makes her move, it must be big and bold. And the possibility of failure is almost certain. How many times has she tried to escape before? How many times has she gotten her hopes up? To then have to endure yet another year in cold dark “room.”
But life is important, and we all must do whatever we can do to save our own lives.
That’s where Room digs in to the deeper philosophical questions it poses, through the extraordinary circumstances of Ma and Jack. Life is not meaningless. A life in “room” may suck, but it is still life. Ma has endured something so horrifying we think, out in the audience, it would “break” us. You hear parents say stuff like that all the time: “I would be put in a mental institution if anything happened to my child.” “I would not be able to go on if such a horrible thing happened to me.” Such statements seem to be a way for parents to deal with the anxiety of having brought life into the world, their fear of the dangers that are out there. But you just don’t know. People endure all kinds of unbelievably terrible things. Look at the refugees flooding out of Syria right now. Humanity is strong strong stuff. It is not that there is inspiration to be found in horror. That is not what I am saying. I don’t look at a woman sitting in a refugee camp who has no idea where her children are and think, “It is so inspiring that she is able to keep going.” Screw that. I think, “It is outrageous and evil that human beings put each other in this situation.” But my point is: Life is strong. It can be taken from us, it can be reduced to the bare minimum of survival, it can be ruined. We can, actually, be damaged beyond repair. And maybe that will be true for Ma and Jack, too. It’s a possibility. The triumph of the human spirit works well with audiences who want to believe in hope, but that’s not the ONLY story to be told. But in Room, it is driven home that being alive is important in and of itself, so much so that we (our spirits, our minds) almost have nothing to do with it. The body holds onto life, regardless of outward misery. Life is worth saving because it is Life. That’s how the human race has endured and lasted. It’s not inspirational – or, it’s not ONLY inspirational. It’s biology.
Ma remembers life “out there.” She was 17 when she was taken. In 7 years, she has become a grey pimpled ghost. And her son, born in “room,” knows no other world. And so if their lives have worth, even just on a biological level, then Ma must be the one to take the reins, break that routine that has been so carefully set up in the first hour of the film, help her son be brave too (and also understand that “room” is not all there is) and make that big bold almost foolhardy move to get them both OUT.
I won’t lie. Room is nearly unbearable, from beginning to end. The acting is extraordinary. The situation alone is so painful you don’t want to look at it directly. It forces itself on you. This is the difficult kind of empathy. The kind of “catharsis” that has nothing to do with breaking down in easy tears but the kind the Greeks understood: a release of pity and fear. Catharsis can be terrible. Young Jacob Tremblay does not feel like an actor. He is 5, 6 years old. He is so completely convincing as an unworldly little boy who has only known his Mother that his performance does not feel like a performance, making it even more of a miracle. Jack is a realistic 5-year-old. He’s not always adorable. Sometimes he is irrational, he throws tantrums, he turns on Ma on a dime. And the relationship Brie Larson has created with this small boy, her only real co-star throughout, is so close that it is almost as though he is still in her womb. He’s “out here” in the world, but he’s still “in there” too. Not for one second do you not believe that they are mother and son, that they have lived in that 11’x11′ room for five years together, that they have not once – except for when Jack goes in the wardrobe so that Old Nick can rape his mother again – been out of each others’ sight. This is not Brie Larson’s movie. It’s a two-hander. It lives/dies on that relationship. These two beautiful humans, one in her 20s, one 6 years old, create it together.
Nothing in Room is sentimentalized.
Not even the second half, which you would think would pour on the violin strings.
Life is hard. Being in “room” is hard. But the world is hard too. No one is safe from any of it. But endurance is built into us biologically. We do not know how strong we are until the Test comes. Be ready.
Room is one of the best films of the year.