Room opens in its nominative set, a shed caringly referred to as "Room" by its occupants, five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother (Brie Larson). The opening shot is the morning of Jack's fifth birthday, which he delightedly tells to everything in Room: a picture of Dora the Explorer, a sink, a toilet, a bed, and his imaginary dog Lucky. The bounds of Jack's world end at the four cork-lined walls and foam-covered roof of Room, its only source of natural light a small skylight ten feet overhead. As we soon discover, this is because Jack's mother has not left this space for seven years—kidnapped as a teenager, she has been held hostage and regularly raped by a man they refer to as "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers). To explain their cramped existence to Jack, and to protect him from the wretched truth, Ma has created a complex theology of existence. As Jack explains it in voiceover, the only thing that is real is in Room; TV (their one source of entertainment) is another realm where imaginary things like dogs and trees exist, and the supplies that Old Nick brings them every Sunday night are retrieved from TV by magic. Only Room, and Jack and Ma, are truly “real.”
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Producers: David Gross, Ed Guiney
Writers: Emma Donoghue, Emma Donoghue (book)
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Editors: Nathan Nugent
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus
Premiere: September 4, 2015 – Telluride
US Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015
US Distributor: A24
Learning this belief system in media res is doubly fascinating because while we see Jack's childlike perspective, we also see what's really happening: a hauntingly familiar scenario that seems to be patterned loosely on the Ariel Castro case. Jack's perspective has a jubilant whimsy to it that is reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild; his world is full of magic that defiantly rejects reason. (For instance, he vehemently defends the existence of his imaginary dog Lucky.) At the same time, their situation is extremely dire, almost too depressing to stomach without Jack’s skewed positivistic worldview.
But then, as the film’s main plot swings into view, this world is upended, along with the film’s tone. It goes from a whimsical exploitation drama to a gripping thriller as Ma plots a way out of this imprisonment for herself and for Jack. Her daring plan, putting them both in necessary peril, is carefully photographed from Jack’s ingénue-ish perspective making it a tense thriller with a heaping dose of dramatic irony—we know so much more about the world than Jack does from inside Room.
The script is written by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the novel on which the film is based. Like last year’s Gone Girl, this is a piece of fiction that—when adapted to the screen—is elevated emotionally to another level. A lot of that credit is due to Donoghue, whose script deftly takes the story out of the first-person close narrative of the novel and puts it into a third-person cinematic view—no small feat. She retains the closeness of Jack’s perspective but also adds a world that exists outside Jack that we see and experience while he moves through it. Director Lenny Abrahamson keeps the narrative taught and exciting, but it’s the script’s emotional intimacy that really gives this film its impact.
Room approaches trauma with tactful honesty—something lacking in many other approaches to the topic. Think of work like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show that has spawned dozens of laudatory think pieces about its treatment of similar characters. While Kimmy Schmidt is portrayed as courageous and optimistic, even “unbreakable,” Ma is the opposite, broken with no chance of ever being “normal” again. Her emotional life is given room to breathe and develop. Ma feels sorrow and regret, resentment and anger, and none of the unbreakable optimism that marks the portrayal of Kimmy. This is an experience that would break anyone, and Ma’s remarkable endurance and courage in the face of such horror doesn’t make it any less harrowing.
Stop reading this review now if you can’t stand spoilers, because talking about Room any further requires a general plot point to be addressed.
Namely this: the pair makes it out of Room and into the world. In many thrillers this would be the end, a simple denouement coming after period of white-knuckle suspense, but what makes Room such an interesting story is that it doesn’t let go of the reins after Jack and Ma make it out of Room. In fact, this is where the script and direction really start to shine, as do the breathtaking performances from the leads—Brie Larson should be an Oscar competitor for this role
Ma has her own adjustment back into life in the real world—balancing the emotional trauma she has suffered and the years taken from her life with her newfound prominence as a tabloid media sob story. (If this film has any true weakness it is the unbelievably capricious news anchor who interviews Ma, but that break in authenticity does little to take away from the emotional heft of Ma’s transition.) Going back to a complicated life no longer constrained by four soundproof walls is surprisingly monumental, and the relationship between her and her parents is believably stilted and teen-aged. Her family has complex feelings about Jack, the offspring of their daughter’s rapist, which make these scenes even more emotionally gripping than their escape.
But most interesting is Jack’s entrance into the world. Here is a developmentally deprived child who has spent the first five years of his life alone with his mother in a tiny space. Jack literally experiences Lacan’s “mirror stage” in the hospital after their escape, recognizing his own reflection as he sees a mirror for the first time. His departure from Room is all too easy to compare to a departure from the womb, as are his reactions to the world outside—he is overwhelmed and confused and just wants to go back to the simple, controllable confines where he was alone with his Ma. He is cripplingly shy, unfamiliar as he is with any people outside of his mother, and he has myriad things to learn. This five-year-old is entering into the world like an infant, overstimulated by so much novelty, but unlike an infant he has complex emotions and the words to voice them. As a philosophical subject, his departure from Room is fascinating, as is his desire to return.
Donaghue demonstrates such empathy for each character that we can’t help but understand every character’s perspective. Imagine coping with a life stolen away from you at 17 but trying to hide that anguish from a child you’re determined to protect, or looking at a grandson whose very existence is proof of a terrible trauma your daughter suffered. Imagine coming into a big world full of wonders beyond count and feeling the desire to go back to where things were simpler, even if a little constrained. There are deep, unpleasant, human truths lurking in this exploitation narrative, and Donaghue's script pulls them out carefully and beautifully, all in a film whose suspense and drama are nearly flawless.