By: Daniel Reynolds
My screening for Room was off to an auspicious start. To begin with, I had a headache and was feeling rundown. From the row behind me, there was a surplus of chatter and candy bag rustling. For a film about the years long entrapment of a woman in a small shed, a period of time that produced an imprisoned son, it felt like there was a frustrating lack of reverence or respect or just merely attention being paid. A strange thing happened, however, as the film continued. The chatter stopped. The rustling went away. A hush settled over the audience. I, along with everyone else, was pushed back in my seat, trivial pains and distractions forgotten. Room and its tiny world were now everything.
For Joy (Brie Larson), the room is her life. When she was 17, she was abducted by a man she didn’t know and locked in a shed. At some point, she was raped by this man (known only as Old Nick, played by Sean Bridgers) and gave birth to a son named Jack (Jacob Tremblay). These are the facts that were apparently not enough to get audience members to stop rustling their bags of candy. But such is the reality of Room. As directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and written by Emma Donoghue (from her novel), the film is four walls, a bed, a closet, a toilet, a tub and some kitchen appliances. A skylight and a TV are the only things to suggest any kind of connection with the outside world. It’s a world so enormous that Joy has to conceal its true size to Jack; she has to condition him to the terms of their confined existence. If her life is room, then his must also be. This is the source of heartbreak in Room, as Jack’s voice comes to us over the film’s images throughout. For us, this juxtaposition is horror; for him, there is no comparison. It’s the only thing Jack has ever known.
Allow me a segue here. Earlier this year, Netflix released a show called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a woman who escapes captivity and finds a new lease on life in New York City. The starting point for the show, a connection made clear by the opening credits, was the Ariel Castro kidnapping case. This is dark subject matter made light. Now, there’s a case to be made about comedy being one way of dealing with horrifying realities. Some comedians will tell you it’s never too soon to make a joke about something because, well, how else can we face it? But while Kimmy Schmidt has great fun poking at modern urban life–including the intersection of gender, race, class, homosexuality, and media representation–it gleefully dances away from the core conceit of its concept. We can laugh about it, but you know what, I’d rather not. Living in captivity would be an absolute hopeless, horrifying existence. And this kind of entrapment, escape and readjustment to normal life, when it happens for real, or as its shown in a film like Room, really exposes how glib and unnecessary a show like Kimmy Schmidt is. I really can’t look at it the same way again, no matter how many good Dong jokes it makes.
Anyway, Larson’s performance is miles away from Ellie Kemper’s wide-eyed naivety; her eyes remain appropriately weary. Larson has a way of drawing you into a performances through those eyes. You remember her, even after she’s spent most of her career in the shadows of other movie stars, or in bit comedy parts. Her breakout performance was in the underseen film Short Term 12 (featuring future Mr. Robot Rami Malek, by the way). In that film, as with Room, she projects a fearlessness that feels both invincible and vulnerable. We want to save her, even as her eyes maintain a light that insists she will save herself. Larson spends half the film almost exclusively in the company of Tremblay, a nine-year-old who convincingly plays younger. They have a believable chemistry, and while child actors usually fall into two categories–awful or annoying–Tremblay’s Jack is innocent and likeable. Yes, he has his shrill moments too, but these act as obstacles, things Larson’s Joy has to work around in her quest to free them both. It’s hard to explain to a five-year-old living in captivity how a prison break works.
Unlike a recent film like The Martian, which showed the indomitable will of man while also smoothing over any of the potential repercussions of a life lived in near-isolation, Room opts to take the Castaway route. We’re fairly confident throughout that Joy will find a way to escape, that she and Jack will be released into the world. Even just looking at the cast list, which includes the excellent Joan Allen and William H. Macy as Joy’s parents, gives that away. Like Castaway‘s Tom Hanks and his journey back to life, the question isn’t of Joy’s successful escape, it’s what will be left of her when it happens. Can a person ever adjust after such a terrible ordeal? We’re told that Joy is lucky Jack is still “plastic,” implying he’s still able to be molded back into a semblance of normal. For Joy, her life unfairly ripped away from her, change appears far from easy. This new tension drives the second half of the film.
There’s a discussion to be had about which half of Room is the strongest. This is a film about survival, and the film’s decision to contrast life in the shed with life in the world is a brave one. The physical tension of Room‘s first half explodes in the second, but this creates a rapidly filling pool of unease. I’m tiptoeing around specifics here, but the analysis of this fallout is far more interesting a narrative. It shifts the focus from questions of how to what now? It becomes more than a prison break movie. We wonder: What will the parents of Joy think and feel? What will Joy’s life look like now? How will others look at her? Will Jack be able to understand what has happened to him? Will he ask about his father? How Room attempts to deal with questions like these as it moves towards a succinct bit of closure is part of its power. The pain of the first half, and subsequent release of the second, feel earned.
As for the people in the theatre with me, they remained quiet. The only sounds I heard from the midpoint on were gasps. I spent most of that time hiding my face and had to dry my cheeks quickly. Room is the rare film that expands to knock the air out of whatever space you’re in. It is beautiful in that way, but you’ll never feel happier to stand in the cool night air after it’s done.