Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

Posted: February 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

The novel on which “Room” is based was unique.  It was unique because it was written from the first-person point of view of a six-year-old boy.  It also, surprisingly, sounded like the authentic voice of a six-year-old when you read it.  The form was important as the story, and the story alone was pretty heartbreaking, revolving around a woman who was kidnapped, locked in a shed for about 7 years, and who gives birth to a baby fathered by her repeated rapist.  We’ve seen news stories like this in recent years, of women who are locked up for years in basements or sex dungeons and who eventually find their way to freedom.  Some, almost assuredly, are not so lucky. “Room” gave us the point of view of someone born into those conditions and doesn’t know any other world.  If you don’t know any better, even a prison can seem like home.  If you’re young enough, you can even be taught that it’s all that exists of the world.


The film adaptation of “Room” loses some of the book’s power because, regardless of whether it has occasional voiceover from the six-year-old, film can feel like a more objective medium. We’re on the outside looking at the mother (Brie Larson, who is absolutely terrific) and the son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and not inside Jack’s head trying to piece together what’s happening from Jack’s limited cognitive skills and vocabulary. From shot one we see the squalor of the shed they live in, which has a skylight, a bed, a wardrobe that Jack calls a bed, a bathtub, and a small kitchenette. The mother has told Jack lies to make it easier for Jack to accept his surroundings. Pieces of furniture take on personas, people on the TV are not real, and so on.  It’s very much like Roberto Benigni lying to his son during the Holocaust in “Life is Beautiful” (1997).  What the medium of film does is shift some of the focus from Jack to the mother.  In the book Jack has no issue with the shed, which he calls “room” because it’s the only world he knows, and it his home. The film, by letting us see for ourselves what it looks like, and see the mother, named Joy, clearly dirty, malnourished, and unhealthy from this situation, we know and understand objectively what Jack cannot know subjectively.  We see the looks on Joy’s face when she’s frustrated with Jack’s limited comprehension, depressed over her situation, or hopeful when Jack picks up on knowledge she’s trying to impart.


The plot is really set into motion when the man who has kidnapped Joy, known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), lets Joy know that he’s been laid off of work and money is scarce.  Joy, fearing that Old Nick will cut off their electricity or stop buying them groceries, or just abandon them to die at worse, realizes that it’s more critical than ever to escape, and Jack might just be old enough to help. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that they do eventually escape, and the bulk of the film is about Jack dealing with experiencing the new world, Joy coming to grips with the guilt of raising Jack in the shed instead of giving him away at birth, and Joy’s family dealing with the daughter they thought was dead being back, and her new son being both a joy himself and a sorrow because, well, he’s half of Old Nick too.


While the movie is pretty faithful to the book (the author, Emma Donoghue, also wrote the screenplay) they are two different experiences.  The book is about perceptions, particularly Jack’s perception, explanations, and rationalizations for experiences he cannot understand but has to live through anyway. The film is about the raw emotions of everyone involved.  When Joy is actually asked why she didn’t give Jack up, you can read the guilt on her face.  Joy was a prisoner, alone, taken from her family. Having a son gave her company, but also a reason to keep going. He was someone to teach, love, talk to, and pretty much the only thing that could have kept her going.  At the same time, his life would have been much better if she had just let Old Nick drop him off at a safe space, and Joy was selfish to keep him, and she knows it.  The way Brie Larson lets you read all of that on her face without saying anything is, quite frankly, worthy of the Oscar nomination she has received for this role.


Watching “Room” is an emotionally brutal experience.  What has happened to Joy is an egregious horror from which nothing can truly be rectified.  Even if Old Nick is convicted and spends his life in jail, it doesn’t really fix anything. Jack still spends his first six years in a shed, and his father is still the evil rapist who kidnapped his mother.  Joy’s life has been interrupted and while her friends went off and had lives and her family all moved on, she could not. When looking through photographs, she points out how they just lived their lives, but she had her life stolen from her.  Even free, she can never be the same person she once was.  Her family, well, we get the feeling her mother and father (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) broke up over everything, and who knows what else was affected. Tragedies have ripple effects like that.


The novel may be more original because of form, but the film loses nothing of the devastating emotional content that the novel’s story held.  “Room” is an immaculately performed, excellent drama. Watching it at times feels like being punched in the gut, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a powerful film in an age when many films are easy and weak. A-


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