D: Lenny Abrahamson / 118m
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, William H. Macy, Amanda Brugel
Ma (Larson) and Jack (Tremblay) live in what they refer to as Room, literally a single room environment that they haven’t been outside of since Ma was abducted and brought there seven years before, and Jack’s birth five years ago. Everything in Room is functional or adapted to be functional. There’s a TV but Ma has told Jack that the people and places and things he sees there aren’t real, and that there isn’t any outside world, only space. This doesn’t quite explain the visits of Old Nick (Bridgers) who brings supplies and ensures the power stays on, but as a constant in their lives, Jack doesn’t question his appearances, or why he has to sleep in the closet when Old Nick pays Ma “special attention”.
The door to Room is always locked; Old Nick uses a combination keypad to get in and out, and Ma doesn’t know the code. With Jack now five years old, and of an age where he can begin to understand the concept of a larger world outside Room – even if he doesn’t believe it can be true – Ma decides it’s time for them to leave and begin to lead a normal life. One night when Old Nick pays them a visit she arranges for Jack to appear sick. Old Nick refuses to do anything more than bring more painkillers the next night. But Ma persuades Jack to play dead and be wrapped up in a rug – her idea is that Old Nick will take Jack’s body somewhere to bury it; when he stops his truck at a road junction, Jack is to jump out and run to the first person he sees and ask for help.
Old Nick is fooled by Ma’s assertion that Jack has died, and takes out the rug with Jack inside it. In the back of Old Nick’s truck, Jack frees himself from the rug, and after a few missed opportunities, jumps from the truck. Old Nick chases him but they encounter a man walking his dog. Seeing that something is wrong, the man challenges Old Nick who throws Jack to the ground and speeds off in his truck. The police are called, and a supportive officer (Brugel) manages to work out from what Jack tells her, just where Ma is. The two are reunited, and at last they can begin to build a new life for themselves.
Without spoiling anything for anyone who hasn’t seen Room yet, it’s a movie of two unequal parts, both in running time and in content. For the first forty-five minutes (approximately), we’re sequestered in Room with Ma and Jack, stuck like they are within four unforgiving walls. But while you might be expected to feel confined or claustrophobic, it’s rarely the case because Ma and Jack don’t see it that way – Jack because he’s never known anything else, and Ma because she’s adapted after seven years to her environment. Neither feels trapped (or at least Ma never gives any indication that she does), and neither appears unhappy with their lot. They have each other, and live in a world that, Old Nick aside, is theirs alone. For Jack it’s a normal life given the parameters Ma has made for him, and for Ma it’s the only life she can have because she wants to protect Jack.
Once Jack and Ma are free of Room, and free to go wherever they wish (once the media has lost interest in them at least), they find themselves confined in a different environment, Ma’s childhood home, now inhabited by her mother, Nancy (Allen) and her new partner, Leo (McCamus) (her father, Robert (Macy) lives abroad, though he returns when he learns Ma – whose real name is Joy – has been rescued). The remaining hour and a quarter finds Joy and Jack finding their way in this new world. There are clever moments of adjustment, such as Jack learning to navigate stairs, but Joy retreats from everyone. And while this may seem like an unexpected turn of events – that Joy should have the most trouble adapting to being back in the “real world” – it’s actually entirely predictable.
This lessens the drama of the second part, as we watch Jack assimilate slowly but surely, and with much more inner confidence than his mother. While Joy becomes dissociative and withdrawn, Jack begins to blossom, aided by his grandmother and Leo (and a very cute dog called Seamus). In fact, it’s the way in which Jack adapts so quickly to his new life that causes the movie to lose some of the dramatic intensity it’s built up until that point. And with Joy missing for a while, the movie has little choice but to show just how Jack’s bonding with Leo and his grandmother is replacing his formerly rock-solid relationship with his mother. It’s a natural progression, perhaps – Jack makes his first friend during this period as well – but given the vigour and the power of the movie’s first part, it also feels like a bit of a letdown. Just how easily can Jack and Joy be separated from each other? As it turns out, quite easily.
Room has been adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, but what works on the page doesn’t translate so well to the screen. Jack provides random smatterings of narration to explain his feelings, but while these interior monologues work in the novel, here they’re another example of insecurities built in to the script. Far more effective is Jack’s wide-eyed astonishment at seeing an impossibly vast sky as he lies in the back of Old Nick’s truck. Inside Room we’re seeing this insular world almost entirely from Jack’s perspective, and thanks to the strength of the material, and Abrahamson’s masterly direction, these scenes have a depth and a profundity that the outside world lacks. Once we’re out of Room the movie loses its way and never recovers the compelling aspect that propels those first forty-five minutes.
Thankfully, the two central performances, despite being hamstrung by the change in narrative direction, are uniformly superb. Larson is possibly the finest actress in her age group working today, and here she’s simply breathtaking, finding aspects and nuances of her character that aren’t always apparent from the script, and making Joy’s eventual struggle with “normality” less formulaic than it is as written. Matching her is Tremblay, giving the kind of honest, uninhibited performance that only a child actor can give. He provides such an intelligent, forthright portrayal that the viewer can only look on in wonder at how effortlessly he does it all. Just watch his reactions to being asked questions by the police officer: they’re a mini-masterclass in conflicting emotions forcing themselves past overwhelming shock.
In the director’s chair, Abrahamson (thankfully not calling himself Leonard anymore) excels at portraying the insular world of Room, and maintains an uneasy tension throughout these scenes and Jack’s escape. And with the aid of Danny Cohen’s exemplary camerawork, he allows the viewer to prowl in and around Room as if they were living there too. But once the movie settles down at Nancy’s home, his confidence and control over the material lessens and leads to several scenes lacking any kind of resonance at all. And as a result, newcomers to the story such as Allen and McCamus are left largely to fend for themselves. It’s clear that Abrahamson and Donoghue have forged a good working partnership, but it’s also clear that they couldn’t recognise or overcome the deficiencies that so hurt the movie’s second act. In the end, the relationship the viewer has built up with Ma and Jack in their captivity is ruined by their freedom, and in essence, that’s too much of a price to pay when that relationship has been so immediate and so powerful.
Rating: 7/10 – let down by an injudicious approach to its second part, Room wastes the tremendous amount of goodwill it acquires during the first part, and becomes a movie that sinks under the weight of its own capitulation; however, it does boast two hugely impressive performances from Larson and Tremblay, and an opening forty-five minutes that are among the most remarkable of any movie in recent years – so see it just for them.