Director Lenny Abrahamson’s film Room is an incredibly intimate study of the resiliency of the human psyche. The movie – based on author Emma Donoghue’s award winning 2010 novel of the same name – is bleak and tragic while being simultaneously hopeful and life affirming. It’s also an intense character study that churns the stomach with suspense, all without feeling exploitative. The craftsmanship of the movie on a technical level, from the beautiful cinematography to the heart-breaking performances, is of the highest quality.
Room tells the story of Joy and her five-year-old son, Jack. Joy was abducted as a teenager by a man she and Jack call Old Nick, who holds them in a shed about the size of a prison cell they both refer to simply as “Room.” Joy hasn’t been outside Room in seven years, and it’s all Jack has ever known. Old Nick routinely rapes Joy, and Jack is the product of one of those assaults. The story is fiction, but author Donoghue was inspired to write it after hearing the horrific true life details of survivor Elisabeth Fritzl, whose story is also disturbingly similar to those of the three young women recently kidnapped and imprisoned by Ariel Castro. Room details Joy’s attempt to get Jack out, and the aftermath of her plan.
There is a sequence about midway through the film that hinges on the viewer not knowing the outcome of the escape attempt. The dread and anxiety I felt during this section of the film was palpable. Because I’m obsessed with movies, the easiest way I can relate the feeling I had is by describing another movie. When I was 14 years old, I watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for the first time. At that age, I wasn’t quite ready to deal with the psychological horror and graphic violence that film puts on display. Particularly during the protracted rape scene in that film, I became physically nauseous and started shaking. Room had the same effect. The 35-year-old man sitting in the theater was instantly transformed into the adolescent who was completely in over his head. It was a bewildering experience.
The movie is a richly complex study of survivors. Joy is in a situation that seems completely hopeless. No one would begrudge her simply slipping into a depression due to her circumstances. Perhaps because she has someone who depends on her, she can’t allow herself that luxury, though. Actress Brie Larson is a revelation in the role of Joy. She is called on by the part to exhibit so many conflicting human emotions, and she does so expertly. From the happiness of a mother baking a birthday cake for her son, to the anger and frustration of being in such cramped quarters with that same son who can be uncooperative, Larson’s performance feels lived in and completely genuine.
Joy wants to shield her son from the ugliness of the world, and that’s an unbelievably hard task when Jack’s whole world is a representation of that ugliness. As Jack, nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay gives a performance with a power and truth that would make actors who have honed their craft for 30 years jealous. He’s completely naturalistic without a hint of artifice. Jack’s ordeal is particularly mind-bending when you put yourself in his place. This is a child who knows nothing of the outside world. For his entire existence, all he has seen can be put into a space not much bigger than the average bathroom. That’s why it’s all the more poignant to see the happiness he can express in his everyday life. Even his ritual of saying goodnight to every item in Room is heartwarming and at the same time depressing, because he says goodnight to the sink instead of a cherished stuffed animal, which he doesn’t have.
A real strength of Room is the compassion director Abrahamson creates for his heroes. This is Joy and Jack’s story, and Abrahamson wants to make sure the audience’s sympathies (and empathies) are squarely with them. He’s careful to depict the one sexual assault that occurs on screen in the least sensationalistic way possible. It feels odd to write, considering the plot of Room, but the R rating seems somehow too strong, that’s how respectful Abrahamson is of his protagonists’ dignity.
This is a human story of perseverance in the face of horrific circumstances, and the filmmakers make it clear they know that. Danny Cohen’s cinematography does a neat trick of vacillating between cold blues and warmer tones based on the emotions Joy and Jack are experiencing. It sounds like that could be disorienting, but Cohen knows when and how to make those adjustments coherent from scene-to-scene. Composer Stephen Rennicks provides a beautiful, delicate score heavy on piano and strings. He’s aided with a heartbreaking a cappella rendition of the song Big Rock Candy Mountain sung by Brie Larson as Joy. It’s a lullaby easy to imagine Joy has sung to Jack countless times before.
That anxiety-inducing scene of Jack’s escape attempt is set to a song by post-rock band This Will Destroy You, called The Mighty Rio Grande. It’s a piece of music that does everything post-rock does best, and it’s a perfect fit with the scene. Just like the images Jack sees as he peeks out at the world for the first time, the song is wondrous. Just as the audience is desperate for Jack to succeed, the song is hopeful. And just like the thought of a child being locked in a cage for his first five years of life, the song is melancholy. Room is a meditation on how the worst actions of humans can give rise to our best traits. Despite the grim subject matter, it’s an incredibly optimistic view of the human psyche's ability to persevere in even the worst situation.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Room is probably the most emotionally moving film I've seen since 2014's Selma. The care and respect all involved put into this story shines through from the first frame to the last.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I saw Room with my partner and her friend, who both read the book. After the showing, they described to me how they gripped onto each other's hand during the attempted escape, wrapped in suspense, despite already knowing how it turned out.
- Author Donoghue adapted her own novel for the screen, and if my sources (see previous comment) are to be believed, she did a spectacular job.
- Seriously, if you haven't checked out the band This Will Destroy You, do it now!
- If it weren't for Mad Max: Fury Road, this would be my pick for the Oscar Best Picture.