Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus
Running Time: 118 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Plot Details**
The events that unfold in Lenny Abrahamson's Room are something we see frequently covered in the news, but without ever truly understanding or processing its ramifications or how it affects the victims involved. In fact, there's probably a good chance the actual crime is happening somewhere right now as I'm typing this. A young girl or woman is abducted, being held captive in some undisclosed location by her kidnapper. Her family eventually gives up hope. Years later, she's found. The media descends. The requisite interviews take place. The family rejoices. Everyone rides off into the sunset and goes on with their lives.
Room isn't about any of this. It's a movie that makes us read between the lines to see and feel the psychological and sociological implications of being trapped in that scenario. And then it dares to go even further, satisfying those like myself who believe the best part of Cast Away was when he returned "home," and had to not only adjust to a new world around him, but live with the memory of an experience that made him an entirely different person than before he left. It takes that basic idea and ups the ante, adding another component that's absolutely gut-wrenching in how it organically pulls and pushes your emotions to the breaking point without a hint of manipulation.
The plot details of the screenplay (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own best-selling 2011 novel) are almost incidental, as the commercials and trailers freely gave away what most would consider spoilers under different circumstances. It's also an ordeal, albeit one built on the foundation of logic and sound decision making by the filmmakers. And none of it comes together without the two performances at its center, functioning as a single unit. One from an exceptionally gifted child actor and another from an actress who's work has steadily been building to this for a while now, filling in the final piece of the puzzle that should deservedly garner her all the acclaim and attention she deserves.
Kidnapped seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) is being held in a small shed with her young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), whom he refers to as "Ma." With a ceiling skylight and television being their only limited exposure to the outside world, she creates a small universe for him inside this confined space, which fosters his often fantastical imagination. Their captor is a bearded man they've nicknamed Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who keeps the boy paralyzed with fear in his bed with his nightly rapes of Ma, one of which he resulted from.
After reaching his milestone 5th birthday, Ma decides Jack's now old enough to know the truth of how they got there, while also realizing she'll need his help and cooperation to escape. After failed attempts at this in the past, she's formulated a plan she feels could work if both demonstrate the necessary courage and resourcefulness to carry it out. And they do. But what happened in that room is only the beginning, as their adjustment to the real world carry challenges Ma couldn't foresee, proving to be as formidable a challenge as any obstacle they both faced in Room.
What's most appreciated is how the film gets into it right away, trusting the performances to tell a story no amount of exposition or flashbacks could convey as effectively. Initially, we have no idea who these two are other than that they are mother and son and can only guess at why they're living in this small room, though the cards start falling quickly into place. As does this wonderful, stream of conciousness narration from Jack, which would in any other circumstance come off as the babblings of a possibly dim child with a limited concept of the world around him. But because this room is all he knows and his world literally begins and ends with it, they could in this context be viewed as perfectly reasonable questions and often fascinating observations
Besides not knowing what's out's there, Jack doesn't even know what "out there" means, making the first hour of the film play as this fascinating sociological experiment of sorts, seeing how a mother would raise her child within the confines of four walls and a skylight. It's Larson who makes this dynamic so compelling, right up until the moment it's time to come clean to her son and enlist his help, regardless of his anger at the idea. But it's only valuable to analyze as an experiment until it isn't, which is any time the shed door unlocks and Old Nick makes an appearance. Then it's just plain terrifying. Because we're seeing everything through small Jack's eyes, the glimpses we get of their bearded, twisted captor and the control he exerts, seem only that much worse. You envision that the person who did this must be as evil and twisted as can be, and Bridgers' brief appearances fill the quota, even as some of his worst actions take place off screen or through wardrobe closet door slats.
If my heart was in my throat up to this point, the escape has it nearly pounding out of my chest. Without giving away too many details, the screenplay takes what should be a completely implausible plan into the realm of total plausiblity by presenting a logical series of events that don't go down without a hitch or two, but just well enough to not stretch credibility too far. Extremely competent police work, a few (but not too many) lucky breaks and one really smart bystander basically converge to create the most excitingly filmed and performed sequence of the year.
Shot completely from the perspective of 5 year-old Jack seeing the outside world for the first time, every camera shake has your palms sweating in anticipation of how things will pan out. And all this tension is created despite our general knowledge of the outcome. Reaching its emotional crescendo and fully invested in two characters we've known a mere 30 to 40 minutes, there's already been more than enough substance to fill an entire feature. But then the realization hits that Abrahamson is just getting warmed up and most movies would end where this one arguably begins.
Seamlessly shifting from nail-biting, single location thriller to moving coming-of-age tale, Joy Newsome (Ma's real name) is reunited with her mom and dad, returning to a reality in which she's lost 7 years of her life and her parents (brilliantly played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy) now have a grandson. And it doesn't skirt the fact that to some he could be viewed as a living, breathing, walking symbol of an event that destroyed everyone's lives.
Here's where it's important to tread carefully in revealing details because Abrahamson's commitment to making even the tiniest of them resonate is what makes the rest of the picture so special. And it's here where Larson really plunges the depths of this character in much the same way she did a couple of years ago in Short Term 12, taking a strong-willed caregiver and completely unraveling her as inner demons take over. Before long, it's apparent she's plummeted into near-helpless state.
Mother and son quite nearly switch roles, with Jack having to stay strong for her as he's exposed the endless possibilities of the world ahead of him. Ironically for Joy, despite no longer being a prisoner, she's as trapped as ever, with the walls rapidly closing in on her in ways they never did inside that room. None of this is outright acknowledged, but instead conveyed by Larson and Tremblay's potent performances, which hit completely different notes than in the film's first half. While he stays clear of any precociousness that could have seeped into the role had another child his age taken it, she has these quietly devastating moments that let us know how much of her identity is gone.We see it in conversations with her parents or reaction upon returning to her childhood bedroom and looking at an old picture.
Joy must also have to deal with public perceptions and living this new life, at least temporarily, inside the media's fish bowl. There's a point during the third act when she's confronted by a surprising and seemingly ruthless question that causes her to go off the deep end. But once you get past the coldness of it, the question is just as surprising to us since it's a seemingly obvious observation we never considered either, inviting serious introspection to come up with a valid answer.
Whether it was a deviation from Donoghue's novel or not, the decision to start the film where it does and forego backstory to focus primarily on the aftermath was a valuable one. It's also a relief that we never see the initial kidnapping, which now looms so terrifyingly large in our minds that no scene, no matter how expertly filmed, could possibly match it. And it's Larson's performance, which brought this reviewer to the edge of tears throughout, that renders any additional narrative or explanations unnecessary. It's true that without Tremblay it couldn't be possible, but even truer that it couldn't all come together without Abrahamson's inventive direction, which is far more creative than expected given the claustrophobic subject matter. He previously directed last year's Michael Fassbender wears a giant papier-mâché head music biopic, Frank, and while that was a decent enough watch, there weren't many previous hints he had something like this in him.
Upsetting and polarizing for good reason, this was far from a slam dunk by description alone, but on screen it all converges in a gripping, ingeniously structured way few literary adaptations have managed. When films put characters through horrific ordeals, it's rare we get to see an aftermath, much less a detailed one. This takes care of one of my biggest pet peeves by crafting this giant epilogue, spending all the time available letting us inside the heads of these characters. While much of the conversation will undoubtedly revolve around the emotional power of the mother-child bond and its two shattering performances, Room inspires far more thought and contemplation than it's getting credit for.