It’s like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – if that cave was a torture chamber run by a sick pervert.
The world is a scary place, all bright lights and unexplainable color, sonorous bleeps and bangs and unfamiliar edges. Luckily, our brains have a chance to catch up to the fear, easing us into life as we grow from infant to adulthood, testing those cruelly cold waters inch by inch until we hope to understand our place in the universe. But what if our scope were limited? What if our world were just a small part of the overall Cosmos, robbed of actual life? If we were raised in this environment, never seeing the outside world with all of its intricacies, would we love our world, depend on it, believe that it is all there is?
Life for five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson) is a simple one; they toil away the hours in the normal way. The pair have meals, watch television, play games, Jack does school work and takes his vitamins; however, Ma and Jack are not normal. They live in the titular Room: a small woodshed converted into a cell by Ma’s abductor “Old Nick” (Sean Bridges doing his best creepster). It’s a magical, dependable place when seen through Jack’s eyes, as he describes his existence almost like a gothic fairytale. How Ma came to this place is revealed over time, slowly, as she eases Jack into the reality of the situation.
Emma Donoghue’s script – based on her 2010 novel of the same name – is quiet where others might play up the melodrama. This is Jack’s story much more than it is Ma’s, and we see most of the world as he sees it, and we are subject to the horrors of reality as they unfold over time for Jack. Long moments of silence follow heavy lines of dialogue, allowing the plight of our characters to organically reveal their story and struggles.
The film never suffers with the absence of space, highlighting the varying degrees of texture and color in Room while brilliantly playing depth. Like the characters, clever framing allows the audience to nearly forget Room is a veritable prison in size, as we cinefiles are trained to buy the illusion of space beyond the frame. We’re tricked into thinking there is something outside the confines of our eyes. Further, Room becomes a near-comforting place as seen through Jack’s eyes – the only world he’s ever known. The outside is stark by comparison, scary, too big. Danny Cohen’s sophisticated camerawork is reminiscent of cinematography more often saved for a wartime biopic than a character drama such as this, but it heightens the film. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s framing is inspired, every shot given great care and importance. Nothing is wasted.
There’s an old adage in Hollywood not to ever make a movie with animals or children: this film has both, and while Brie Larson’s Golden Globe winning-performance is now most likely going to win her an Oscar, it is Abrahamson’s ability to garner such a starmaking turn from young Jacob Tremblay that is the true triumph of Room. Tremblay is so vulnerably true, so completely attached to Larson’s Ma that we break in every way he does, we celebrate each happiness, and fear each new experience. Hyperbole alert: it’s by far the best performance I have seen from a child his age and far better than most actors’ work far beyond his years. Larson skillfully combines both confidence and fear, anger and hope, silent rage and violent desperation. As a mother who barely remembers her own, Larson’s Ma obviously loves her son, but she also fades into understandable depression and wears it so brilliantly in nearly every cell.
Production Designer Ethan Tobman is to be admired for the subtle brilliance of both Room and the outside world. There is no piece of furniture out of place or color misused. Further, Sid Armour’s makeup perfectly fits with two people existing under nothing but florescent lights for years. Nothing is left to “just be” in this film; everyone takes great care to authentically present the world of Room almost like a documentary. Obviously, Ma’s story is one based on horrific actual events, but it never derails into cable movie or dime-store exploitation. Instead, these are complicated emotions and the characters have no real solutions, even when presented with what we, as the audience, think they should be feeling.
Make no mistake, Room is an intense ride, and not to be viewed lightly. There are some moments that border on emotional smut; however, Donoghue smartly writes for Jack in those scenes. The script never focuses too much on Ma’s internal struggles, instead choosing to reveal these horrors through the young boy’s eyes, allowing the audience distance to cope. Peripheral characters are just that at times, as Ma’s father (played by William H. Macy, in a glorified cameo) is mostly wasted. Joan Allen delivers her on patented nuanced mom role, fitting nicely with the tone, but again, she’s mostly just there for the plot. This is a world for Ma and Jack, and though that works in the film’s favor predominantly, viewers might want to know a little more about the other characters.
Room might have been the best film of the year if it had lived up to the first act, staying a fairytale told by Jack, but we have to eventually escape to the real world, and I found myself lost after the climax, caring much less for the characters than I had before. It is possible that’s what this Investigation Discovery-loving country is used to, however. We love the sensational story, but once reality sinks it, we lose interest. Strong on performance and directing, this sleeper is certainly worth your time, though, but I have to emphasize one point: bring a box of Kleenex and a knife. For protection.