ROOM (2015) review
written by: Emma Donoghue (screenplay and novel)
produced by: Ed Guiney and David Gross
directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
rating: R (for language)
runtime: 118 min.
U.S. release date: October 16, 2015 (limited) and October 23, 2015 (wide)
I know it’s a challenge, but my recommendation is to see “Room” knowing very little about it going in. It’s enough to know that this emotional, exhausting and beautiful film has two of the best performances of the year, but do try to avoid reading up on it beforehand. Now, if you’ve already read the best-selling book of the same name by Emma Donoghue – who also wrote this screenplay – you have an idea what you’re in store for, but seeing the compelling story unfold is a powerful experience whether or not you’ve read the book. No doubt you’ll be hearing about this film even more as nominations and awards are announced and let me tell you it is all well-deserved.
Not having read the book and knowing there’d be no way I could start and finish it before the film is released, I went in only knowing that the buzz from its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last month was positve and Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) is, once again, amazing. That’s all I needed to picque my interest.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (who helmed last year’s “Frank”) opens the film with indecipherable images – corners of counters, drawings and a look at the blue sky from a skylight. We soon learn this is the viewpoint of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who lives with his twentysomething mother (Brie Larson) in a room. This is where he lives and they’ve never left. There’s a bed, a television, a sink, a bathtub, a kitchenette and a toilet. The walls are decorated with Jacks’s drawings and the crafts he has made with his mother and this room is the only home Jack has ever known. It is the only world he’s ever known.
However, now that Jack has turned 5 years-old, his mother, Joy, has decided it is time that he knows the truth. There is more to the world than these four walls. She tells them how the room they are in is actually a shed in the backyard of a man, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped her seven years ago, when she was seventeen, and has held her captive since. She explains that the beeping sound they hear at night is Old Nick, their captor, entering in the key code of the door to their room, where he delivers food, clothing and anything else they need. Joy makes it clear though, that there are trees, grass and other people outside the room and he even has a grandma and grandpa that would love to meet him.
This information is mind-blowing and overwhelming for the boy. He doesn’t believe it, becomes agitated and confused. It takes some time, but eventually the boy comes around and soon Joy enlists his help in implementing a risky plan for their escape.
I won’t go into the details of their escape, but I will mention that it was during these scenes when I first started blubbering in my seat (these were tears would be revisited as the story’s second half continued). It’s a white-knuckle, nerve-racking sequence that had me freaking out. The stakes are real and flat-out frightening, I was so worked up watching the escape. It’s just an extremely well-done sequence and partial credit goes to Abrahamson’s directing and Danny Cohen’s (“A Brilliant Young Mind“) cinematography, but most of the credit goes to the incredibly open and committed performances by Tremblay and Larson.
These two actors make it so easy to invest in them and it’s during this pivotal moment in the story where we cannot bear to see anything else happen to them. But we know the stories we see reported and read in real life. We know how these situations potentially play out and we hope this mother and her child get to safety, knowing how rare that outcome is. Those who’ve read the book know the outcome, but still, when you see it on screen it really takes your breath away.
Getting caught up in the emotions at this point in their story is also easy. Mainly because of the subconscious awareness viewers have today. We have unfortunately been inundated with similar stories on national news, so it’s hard to not think of those real-life situations and outcomes while watching this play out on film. There’s a visceral “out of the frying pan, into the fire” feel to their escape, that will overwhelm you with suspense, especially if you get worked up seeing children in danger on-screen.
Of course, the best thing to happen to Joy and Jack would be to be free from their captor and experience freedom. Let’s think about that though. Jack grew up in “Room”, as he calls it – like a child would call their home, “house” or “apartment” – so, that’s all he knew. He was not experiencing trauma during his five years in captivity the way his mother did. She had a seemingly normal teen life prior to her abduction and we can only imagine the emotional grief she went through in those first two years before Jack. Not knowing if she’d ever see her mother (Joan Allen) or father (William H. Macy) again – not to mention trees, grass and sunlight. Thankfully, the film doesn’t show the details of her sexual abuse from Old Nick, since it’s mostly told from Jack’s perspective and his mom would hide him in the wardrobe during their captor’s visits at night – but we know how to go there in our head. I thank screenwriter Emma Donoghue for respecting her audience in that sense.
When Joy and Jack are free there is a transference of trauma, or grief, that I found both fascinating and realistic. The most obvious is seen in Jack, who is now experiencing a heightened level of sensory trauma, seeing how this is the first time he has ever encountered another human besides his mother (and an occasional Old Nick). Again, we can’t help but to imagine this. First time seeing trees. First time feeling grass. First time touching a leaf. First time experiencing everything we take for granted. Abrahamson places the camera appropriately through the boy’s point of view and shows him looking up to his mother, whispering whenever another adult asks him questions. These are fitting choices that makes sense. He’s still so used to his mother, but his mother is starting to breakdown.
As much as Joy always wanted to break free from that shed, she couldn’t have imagined how extremely different and challenging it would be for her. After all she’s had to do to survive, she never thought where freedom would leave her or what place her world be in once she was free. Now that she’s out, Joy learns how the world she knew has changed. Her parents have separated – her father has moved out-of-state and a family friend, Leo (Tom McCamus), now lives with her mother as her boyfriend. The friends she had lived a life she was supposed to have and have moved on. Now she has to figure out where she and Jack fit in this new world, all while media hovers for an exclusive interview. At this point in the movie, it makes sense for Donoghue and Abrahamson to separate mother and son. Jack is fine with his grandmother, but depression and frustration – and overall grief – has overwhelmed Joy. For the first time ever, the two are apart and it’s needed space before Joy can be reunited with her son.
This is all handled without prancing out the melodramatic hysterics a story like this could’ve included. Abrahamson gives the characters – and the actors who play them – their needed space to navigate their way through emotionally difficulty terrain. Larson and Tremblay are simply incredible in their roles, from start to finish. Their work here hit me in such a way that I get emotional just thinking about their performances. Larson has shown such great range in a short amount of time in these last few years, that she’s easily become a talent that I would follow anywhere and Tremblay is just a remarkable find – there is no sense whatsoever that we’re watching an actor, which is amazing for his age.
I want to see “Room” again, primarily for these two performances, but I just don’t know if I can handle the seeing this story play out again. It’s raw, intense and heartbreaking, yet I nevertheless find myself wanting to revisit my time with Larson and Tremblay. Despite how challenging it is to take in at times, “Room” needs to be seen and will certainly be on my year-end list.