Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, based on her novel Room
Cinematography: Danny Cohen; Editing: Nathan Nugent
Production Design: Ethan Tobman; Set Decoration: Mary Kirkland; Costumes: Lea Carlson; Score: Stephen Rennicks
Stars: Brie Larson (Joy Newsome), Jacob Tremblay (Jack Newsome), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), Joan Allen (Nancy Newsome), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert Newsome), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Cas Anvar (Dr. Mittal), Wendy Crewson (Talk Show Hostess), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski)
I’m nothing short of ecstatic about Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, the story of a kidnapped woman, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), who escapes the garden shed where she’s been held prisoner for seven years, along with her born in captivity son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), exposing him to the outside world for the first time. Though the movie, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel is fictionalized, she was inspired by so many similar cases that have come to light recently, it bears the ring of authenticity.
True this ripped from the headlines story would seem to belong on the Lifetime channel, and it’s possible many viewers will be put off by the sordid subject matter or that others will be drawn to it by tabloid curiosity, expecting a different sort of film. But Room transcends its sensationalized, movie-of-the-week premise to a marked degree, simply using it as a starting off place to examine larger, philosophical issues and questions concerning cognitive human development. The movie isn’t much concerned with the tangential facts of the case, which are treated offhandedly in a more abstract, matter-of-fact manner, much the way Jack himself, through whose eyes the story is told, accepts things as they are, never having known any different. Room becomes more engrossed by the sensory impressions of this child on which it centers, a boy born like Little Dorrit into captivity, his entire world bordered by four walls, limiting his frame of reference, stunting his normal intellectual, emotional and social growth.
The senso-aural deprivation of this child who can’t believe the spatial depth and vastness of a world extending beyond his reach, is depicted in a singular impressionistic way, similar to how it was for the paralyzed protagonist of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, who peered out at the world from the prison of his own body after suffering locked-in syndrome. Jack’s overstimulated disorientation must be similar to the perceptions of isolated native tribes when they too experienced First Contact with an unsuspected outside world lying just beyond their own borders. The premise of Room is very modern and of the moment, but the material is approached by director Abrahamson in a classical manner that sets in in the proud tradition of earlier stories of children reared out of touch with civilization who are then brought into harsh, disillusioning contact with it. There have been pop cultural approaches to the subject in tales like Tarzan and The Jungle Book, where children were raised like wild animals in savage environments. And Jack suggests this concept himself later when he sports a raccoon toboggan that gives the impression he’s wearing an animal pelt, a sort of coonskin cap. And he keeps his hair down to his waist, allowing it to fall into his face like a shaggy, shambling beast, resembling those feral little girls from Mama.
But if anything, Room is closer in sentiment to more earnest, sincere takes on the same subject, movies like Francois Trauffaut’s The Wild Child or Arthur Penn’s adaptation of The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller who, being both deaf and blind, was likewise cut off from complete connection with the world around her. Perhaps most closely, Room recalls Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, based on a true story about a youth who turned up in early 18th century Nuremberg out of the clear blue, claiming to have been chained in a dark cellar all his life. Having never had any contact with other people or exposure to the outside world, Kaspar too responded to everything he came into contact with as if it were newly minted. As a contemporary, Anselm von Feuerbach noted at the time, Kaspar showed “…such perfect ignorance of the commonest things and appearances of Nature, and such a horror of all customs, conveniences and necessities of civilised life, and withal, such extraordinary peculiarities in his social, mental and physical disposition, that one might feel one’s self driven to the alternative of believing him to be the citizen of another planet, transferred by some miracle to our own.”
Jacks’ own nascent, childlike curiosity, his thirst for knowledge is evocatively conveyed in those scenes where he’s seen reaching up toward the skylight which provides his only window onto the outside world, magically dappled with frost in winter and raindrops after showers. Just out of reach, he extends his arms beseechingly toward the sunlight streaming through, like Boris Karloff’s newly created Frankenstein monster, likewise cruelly chained in a room without a view to prevent him from gaining knowledge and insight into the human condition, which might cause him to question his creator. Room can be seen as a contemporary variation on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which the notion of enlightenment was described by the philosopher in terms of prisoners chained all their life in a darkened cavern, whose only perceptions of the world came to them through the shadows cast on the wall by passersby. Similarly, Jack’s only concept of an external reality has come to him second hand through the vicarious means of a television screen, shadows of things rather than the things themselves. Enclosed in their own sort of box, a flat 2D world which he perceives in his limited experience to be ‘real,’ he’s unable even to differentiate animated drawings from real actors, just as Plato’s prisoners weren’t able to discern whether they were observing actual objects in full clarity, or their phantom impressions. Like most children Jack confuses the fantasy he sees on TV with reality, having no other standard of measure. He believes only the creatures who happen into his inner space, spiders and mice are ‘real’ because he can see and touch them, providing empirical proof, while the creatures he sees on TV, such as sharks and crocodiles are made up. Sometimes he believes the characters he sees, which seem so alien to him, inhabit their own individual worlds, parallel dimensions that go on and on even when the set is turned off. Having no depth of vision or sense of perception beyond the spatial confines of this tight, four-sided room, he’s not unlike a denizen of Flatland, the theoretical plane conceived by author Edwin Abbott for his 1884 book about multiple dimensions. Perceiving life only from the limiting dimensions of height and width, it was speculated the inhabitants of Flatland would have as much trouble distinguishing three-dimensional objects passing through their sphere of existence as Jack initially has trouble wrapping his mind around the concept that walls have two sides rather than one.
The existential situation itself raises some interesting questions, such as when Jack asks his mother where they go when they dream, whether they enter the TV, meaning are unfettered to flit through all the times and places he sees paraded across the screen. Though his mother’s response is that they never go anywhere else, that physically they’re always right there in Room, the movie itself is veering into philosophical realms here. The question Jack poses is purposely intended to broach René Descartes’ self-affirming declaration ‘I think, therefore I am.’ As in Descartes’ dream argument, Jack, whose existence has never been officially acknowledged, hidden away as he is, questions the nature of being in relation to an external reality he has no concrete evidence of. For all he knows, he might be drifting untethered through the limbo of space, external reality merely a dream he’s conjured in his own mind that will cease to exist upon waking. Indeed, Jack’s existence will be correlated directly with Descartes’ great waking dream when he’s carried out of the shed for the first time, into the real world that has always seemed nothing more than an insubstantial reverie before. Starting up as if from a dream, into full consciousness for the first time, he finds that it was actually his former existence, the only one he’d ever known until now, that constituted the false reality.
Considering that the unbounded nature of dreams, in which the subconscious isn’t restricted by physical laws of space and time would have given these captives their only pleasurable out, affording them a sense of not being tamped down by this mortal coil, a cell within a cell, I wish the camera had followed along on some of his excursions through slumberland, since surely Jack and especially his mother, who has a full life to recall before she was holed up, must journey freely through astral projection in their sleep, to other places and times that seem as vivid to them in the moment as our own dreams do sometimes. Or maybe even trailed the visiting mouse, like Alice did the rabbit, through the maze of access points it’s discovered, enjoying the sort of unrestricted freedom of movement cruelly denied either inmate. The hole in the wall from which it emerges suggests an entire rabbit’s warren of inaccessible entrance points and exits they could never imagine.
Jacob Tremblay, who has the same sad-eyed, mournful pout as Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer mixed with the sharply etched, fox-like features of Billy Chapin from The Night of the Hunter, manages a very moving performance. He balances the extremes of being a susceptible, wide-eyed kid full of wonder at the world around him with having been exposed to far more of the unsavory world and its wickedness than any child should be. Quite effective at times, I found his performance off-putting and erratic at others, so it pulled up just short of great for me. But just as Jacob’s Jack is forced to grow up before his time, the young actor must also accept adult responsibilities since the weight of the film ultimately ends up resting on his shoulders. His character must find the strength for both himself and his mother, just as the actor playing him is eventually asked to carry the film for his co-stars. Donoghue’s writing is fiercely intelligent, but Room is told in the deceptively innocent words of this child, softening the harsh blows the same way simple Celie’s letters to God were meant to in The Color Purple.
This framing device, which allows Jack to address the audience in voiceover, has been overworked in other rite of passage movies, but while it becomes a bit cloying later on, when the tangible reality of the familiar world around him makes Jack’s words, still full of childish wonder, seem artificial in a way they didn’t in the stylized space of Room, his voiceover works quite well for the most part. Indeed, his first person narration is vital in allowing us to get inside Jack’s confused head, allowing us to grasp the peculiar world view of this child whose experiences have been limited to the confines of one square space, helping us see things through his eyes. Jack’s narration becomes as entertainingly confabulist at times as that of the little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild, who had her own unique way of looking at things, offering us a wholly original slant on the world around us. Seeing things through his eyes helps open our own, causing us to observe the world around us with the same sense of wonder we once did when everything was still new to us.
There’s so little to do locked up, Jack finds himself arrested by the simplest pleasures, such as a toy car, the first present he’s ever received, the prospect of baking a cake, the poignant visit of that church mouse to his dwelling, the closest thing he has to a pet. In our attention deficit age of sensory overload, when children are inundated by constant stimulation from the earliest age, whether it be channel surfing, video games or iPhones, Jack still possesses the creative capacity to invent his own entertainment in the absence of external stimuli. Rather than becoming bored he can keep himself occupied for hours with his freewheeling imagination, laying out endless interior landscapes to explore. His life is all in his head. Things are conceived and described by him in strangely anthropomorphic terms, like the human appliances in The Brave Little Toaster. The shed he inhabits is characterized on a first name basis as ‘Room’ with everything in it – ‘Sink,’ ‘Chair No. 1’ and ‘Chair No. 2,’ ‘Toilet,’ ‘Rug,’ ‘Wardrobe,’ etc., greeted like dear friends rather than inanimate objects. With no one else to play with, he imparts them with lives and personalities all their own, the same way other children do their toys and teddy bears. It isn’t a melted spoon, but ‘Melted Spoon,’ the only one he believes to exist since it’s the only one he’s ever known in the length and breadth of his experience. Jack’s been encouraged to look at the world this way by his mother as a coping mechanism, the way she’s managed to keep his attention diverted from their dire straits, as well as herself from going crazy from the claustrophobia and boredom all this time. In an applied illustration of their philosophy concerning mind over matter – “if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” – the creative exercises she has them engage in so their muscles don’t atrophy, the stories she makes up and inventive games and arts and crafts she devises to keep them busy, creating a snake out of egg shells and twine for instance, serves double duty here, helping to keep audiences engrossed as well.
Serving to explain what most of us can’t understand about cases like this when we hear about them on the news, how women could be kept locked away so long, years and years in some situations, Room gets right down to the psychosexual roots of the Stockholm Syndrome. Here the relationship between captor and captive is depicted almost like a warped marriage, a literal ball and chain, with the garden shed where she’s been held since her abduction having become the playhouse setting. Her maturation stunted, much as early marriages tend to do, Joy has been made to feel psychologically dependent for support on Old Nick, the man who kidnapped her. He assures her she would be lost without him, knowing as little of the world today as her son does, which is just what Old Nick intended by removing her from society and keeping her isolated for so long. He wants her behind closed doors, under lock and key, where he believes women are supposed to be. The inner, interior spaces and domestic spheres of homemaking, child-rearing, housework have traditionally been relegated to ‘the weaker sex,’ while men have left the house to engage in work, big business, intercourse with the wider world on a more public platform, and through the agency of Old Nick’s imprisonment of Joy in the shed, these same dynamics are being subliminally reiterated. He’s determined to keep her subservient to him, a virtual slave in the less than gilded dollhouse he’s constructed. Wanting her entire world to revolve around him, he’s shut out everything that might pose a distraction, shutting her up so her entire existence can center on his daily comings and goings. By keeping Joy isolated, Old Nick can imagine himself king of the castle, with no serious competition to knock the crown off in this extremely limited space, just as Jack can declare himself best at everything within Room, ‘same as Lamp is best at burning brightest.’ Despite the deceptive domesticity of the scenes when Old Nick stops by, complete with Joy putting Jack down for a nap like a baby doll, to keep him hidden away, this man’s relationship with his son would suggest one of competitiveness more than anything, since the boy is taking her attention away from him. It’s just another reason why she tries to keep him out of sight, like the dream child in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, or the nonexistent dog Jack invents for companionship, as if he didn’t really exist, believing if Jack’s neither seen nor heard he’ll stay out of Old Nick’s mind, lowering the risk of being taken away.
Old Nick, whose name invokes diabolic connotations, maintains violent dominion over this woman, keeping her firmly in check. Whenever he feels Joy is getting too big for her britches, being uncooperative or openly defying him, as she does when he lays hands on her son, he cuts off her sole means of support, her lifeline to the larger world, depriving the shed of power, heat and electricity. Like an irate bill collector, he brings her back in line by demonstrating how completely dependent she is on him for survival. Holding the purse strings he goes on and on about the pittances he provides for her, creating a big drama out of the smallest necessities she requests, like vitamins to supplement Jack’s diet, getting him the nutrients he lacks from being indoors all the time, as if they were exorbitant expenses. Old Nick behaves as if Joy’s requests for more than the scraps and second hand discard he’s been willing to throw her were a nag, disrespecting his position as provider and head of house.
Jack, who seems vaguely bratty in the shed, where the limited goods they’re given have to be stretched to the breaking point, seems like the most level-headed kid around once rescued. Having had to conserve and recycle every item they made do with before, Jack is aghast when his mother throws away his underwear after he wets the bed rather than wash them. To him it seems like wanton waste, the same way any underprivileged child who’s never had enough of anything would perceive such excess surplus. Even when he has an overflowing houseful of assorted toys to choose from, he’s content to focus his attention on just one favorite, to which he’s grown sentimentally attached. Cultivating an appreciation for the humblest of treasures, he asks for nothing more to be contented.
To emphasize Old Nick’s oppressive anonymity, the movie at first refuses to show us his face. Since we don’t get a good look at him, he doesn’t seem a fully formed person to us any more than he does to Jack, who warily peeps at this shadowy figure from the slats of the wardrobe closet he’s shunted into whenever his father stalks about. As their captor, free to swan in and out at his leisure, Old Nick’s an abstract concept, denied full personhood. However as Jack becomes more curious about this man who makes overtures to coax him out of hiding, a stranger with candy, we get our first clear look at him ourselves and are as surprised as the son to find he’s so average looking. As played by Sean Bridgers, Old Nick appears normal enough, not at all like the two-headed monster Jack had been led to believe he was. Emboldened by the discovery that he doesn’t seem as threatening as his mother made him out to be, and curious about the only other human being he’s ever come in contact with, Jack makes the mistake of venturing out of the closet while the two sleep, with violent results, an altercation initiated surprisingly enough by Joy herself. His mother wants there to be no contact between father and son, doesn’t even want Old Nick getting Jack a birthday present, much less touching him, and it’s not just because she fears he might be molested as we initially assume, but because she wants him to remain hers exclusively, his mother assuming sole custody. Like Rosemary’s Baby, she believes she can exercise the demon seed out of him through a mother’s unconditional love and doesn’t want Jack developing any sort of bond with the man who sired him, afraid he might be tainted by the same evil genes. She’s fully disassociated her love for the son she bore from her hate for the monster who impregnated her. As she assures that insensitive talk show hostess in no uncertain terms, through clenched teeth and cold, emotionless eyes, “Jack’s not his.” To Joy’s mind, Jack might be the result of a spontaneous virgin birth with no trace of his father in him, regardless of biology. This is why she responds so vehemently when her own unsupportive dad can’t bring himself to look at Jack, seeing only a constant reminder of the man who abducted and raped his daughter. Robbed of her life and cheated of her childhood, Jack’s the sole possession Joy has left she still feels is hers alone, her one perfect, inviolate, private treasure, the only thing to bring her joy during those grim, hopeless years, and so she holds onto him ferociously.
When the interviewer keeps hammering the point, proving what a false impression television can impart, asking if it never occurred to her to have Jack taken to a hospital so he could be free, or adopted out to give him a chance at a normal childhood, pulling up just short of asking why she didn’t have him aborted, Joy reacts as if this were the first time such questions had ever occurred to her. But while the interviewer seems callously determined to make her feel as if she were an awful mother for not having done more, we wonder why Joy doesn’t counter the accusations with the very evidence we’ve seen, in a script that’s been cleverly structured to redeem her on every count. She did try to have Jack taken to the hospital by feigning a fever, but Old Nick refused to budge. She did successfully engineer his escape so he could have a normal upbringing before it was too late, the only reason she waited so long because he wasn’t old enough to understand or strong enough to make it out on his own before. The ironically named Joy, who’d taken to sleeping all day in her increasingly despondent state, compares her situation to that of Alice, who landed in a room with doors too small to escape through once she fell to the bottom of that rabbit hole. So it’s fitting that it should be a line from the book itself, “Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible,” that inspires her to believe that escape is still feasible even after all these years. Like a caged animal, Joy may seem tame and docile at times but there’s always the feral lurking inside, furtively seeking a means to liberate herself. Accusing her mother, once rescued, of raising her to be too nice and accommodating, believing that’s the way women we’re supposed to behave, Joy may have been imprudent enough to fall for Old Nick’s line once, but no longer the susceptible seventeen-year-old she was when he took her, she begins wising up, as she insists her son must.
When his mother, preparing Jack to confront the real world, begins enlightening him by shattering his fragile belief systems with cold, hard facts, it’s heartbreaking in a sense because the script is so clearly making reference to what all parents must eventually do when their children reach school age and the time comes to cut the apron strings after five years of intensive bonding. Jack’s initial disillusionment also invokes the cynicism we all experienced growing up, unwillingly learning the way the hard, cruel world really works. It’s a splash of ice water, so we can understand why Jack would impulsively say that he hated his mother in the heat of the moment, for dismantling his beautiful ideals. After spending his life heretofore building castles in the air, his mother weaving a magical wonderland out of their hellish existence as a means of keeping sane, it seems cruel to confront him with the shattering truth. But it’s a necessary evil, her tough love essential to pushing him out of the nest and into the real world. Not liking what he’s hearing, Jack wants her to tell a different story, wanting to wish away reality as just another storybook fairy tale. The thought that there’s a big, scary world lurking out there beyond the safe borders of his panic room, one he’ll eventually be forced out into, terrifies him. Never having been outside before, touched by human hands other than his mother’s, or known anyone but her and Old Nick, and not quite knowing what to expect beyond the horror stories he’s been told, Jack’s agoraphobia, his initial dread of leaving Room is crippling. To him it isn’t a prison, but as warm and comforting as the womb.
Like all parents, Joy would like to keep her son a little baby forever, but when she finds Jack’s broken the wheels off that toy car, his restless leg syndrome from lack of mobility beginning to emerge emotionally, it’s clear that the situation is becoming desperate. He’s reached a point where he’s absorbed all he can within their present surroundings and must be exposed to outside stimulation if he’s to continue normal development. Having complacently stayed with Old Nick all this time for the sake of their child, she now realizes she must get out for Jack’s own good and begins formulating a plan of escape. Knowing failure means certain death, she still believes the awful risk is worth taking rather than let her son live another day entombed alive in this mausoleum. She wants to give him a fighting chance at a life. Brainstorming possible ways to liberate them, she starts trying to solve the predicament in the story she’d earlier related, the one Jack doesn’t want to believe, becoming in essence the author of her own fate, the story she made up for him becoming the same one unfolding before us on screen.
Mother and son’s multiple, failed escape attempts are built up with all the suspense and tension of a prison break action thriller, and given the backstory Joy relates about how Old Nick crushed her wrist when she made a run for it early in her abduction, we know what’s at stake. Her mounting dread that Old Nick may not show, allowing her to put the escape plan in effect on schedule is almost as palpable as her previous dread whenever he did appear. Still some contrivances strain credulity. It’s a long shot for instance for Joy to trust Old Nick won’t check Jack’s pulse under the pretext that he’s died of fever, to ensure she’s telling the truth. Although her strongly expressed aversion to having Jack touched is brilliantly brought back into play here to save the scene, there’s nothing to stop Nick ascertaining the truth once he’s alone with the body. When Joy has her son smuggled out of the shed she fully believes he won’t be able to come back for her. Never expecting to see him again, she gives Jack her pulled tooth as a keepsake so he’ll have her with him always. Despite the poignancy, we initially think it might be used by the cops as DNA evidence to identify who this kid is, but that turns out not to be necessary. When Jack is separated from her for the first time in his life during his escape attempt, having never before been out of her presence, it’s traumatizing, so their reunion is almost as emotionally shattering for us as it is for them.
In averring to the rescuing authorities that nothing happened to Jack, his mother’s not just referring to the fact that she managed to keep Old Nick’s hands off him, but that he hasn’t been emotionally affected or psychologically scarred by his experiences. Clearly she’s in denial since being confined in solitary for seven years would surely drive anyone a little squirrelly. Rather than taking the advice of the doctor and staying over in the hospital for psychological observation, she claims she needs to go home, and no one could blame her after being forcibly detained all those years. But while she convinces herself she’s successfully shielded Jack from the harsh reality with her fairy tales and fables, as Roberto Benigni used imagination and humor to shield his son from the horrors of the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful, pulling the blinds by shunting him into the wardrobe whenever Old Nick was around, here best efforts could only go so far. Like all children, Jack’s aware of more than she suspects and has been left deeply marked by their captivity.
But the movie doesn’t really go on to spend as much time as it should registering the culture shock of this child brought into contact with the world outside for the first time, his painstaking physical and social adjustment to reality as we know it. Though it seemed to hit Jack hard, to be immediately locked back up in a police cruiser the second he escaped the shed for instance, we don’t find if he’s developed a claustrophobic aversion to closed doors or being shut up inside after being locked away for the first five years of his life. Seemingly unable to speak above a whisper or look others in the eye, clutching and cowering behind his mother for protection, he’s especially sensitive to extremes of temperature and light, as if suffering from porphyria. Though he’s unable to measure space and distance with his eyes, about the only follow through we’re shown is Jack’s difficulty developing the proper motor coordination to climb up and down stairs. His inclination to watch cartoons onscreen rather than going out to play seems little different from that of most couch potatoes today, who weren’t even brought up denied the option. But his mother wants him to connect with something, worried that the illusion might still seem more real to him than actual people do.
Given Jack’s negative interactions with both Old Nick and the grandfather (William H. Macy) who, seeing him as a constant reminder of his daughter’s disgrace can’t bear to look at him, the movie never addresses the possible impact of these less than stellar models of manhood on Jack’s own psychosexual development. While Joy questions how he’s adjusting to the outside world, we’re provided all the telltale evidence of how developmentally arrested he actually is. He refuses to cut the long hair that repeatedly causes people to confuse him with a girl and his intensive relationship with the mother whose sight he’s never been out of has become obsessive. With his burgeoning abandonment issues, the two still bathe and shower together, and he’s still breastfed like a baby, to supplement the nutrients he can’t get from other sources. He should be profoundly screwed up for life, psychologically speaking, an emotional and social cripple, but as the doctor states, the best thing Jack’s mother could have done was get him out while he was still plastic enough to adjust to new surroundings, before his cognitive abilities became fixed and locked in place.
What’s surprising as mother and son try readjusting to society, despite the post-traumatic stress they’re suffering, and we’re busy wondering how poor Jack will adapt to this brave new world, we come to find that Joy’s development has been more arrested than her son’s, making her attempts to readjust a much greater challenge. Having been confined from such a young age, Joy had seen little more of the world before she was taken than Jack, so neither has really grown up yet, which is why her own mother’s continuing presence is so reassuring to them both. Like the girlhood bedroom her mother has preserved as an unaltered shrine ever since her disappearance, Joy hasn’t changed, hasn’t emotionally evolved beyond that scared seventeen-year-old she was when she disappeared. Being locked in Room like Sleeping Beauty in her castle has kept her in a state of suspended animation. Cryogenically frozen in time, she wakes up one day as if from a dream to discover the world’s changed drastically all around her, as it did on Rip Van Winkle. Risen from the grave, she’s disturbed to observe how easily things kept right on turning in her absence, how simple it was for her to just disappear from existence one day, like Descartes’ dreamer awakened, without anyone taking much notice. There’s a reason why some things should stay buried. Joy irrationally confronts her mother, resentful that she’s been able to move on with her life even without her daughter in it. Using it to goad her, as proof that she didn’t really care about her welfare, Joy’s mother settles the outburst by hitting her where she lives, arguing how she would feel if someone took Jack from her. She had assured her son that he would love the world, little guessing all he’d been deprived of heretofore. But suddenly the great big world seems too large, alien and threatening for Joy to adjust to herself. Now that her face is plastered across the media and everyone knows all the intimate details of her traumatic experience, she feels that everyone is staring at her, judging and criticizing her, making her feel like a bad mother.
The interviewer tells Joy that nobody’s expecting her to be a pillar of strength, but she’s had to be tough for so long that she falls to pieces the second she’s bereft of the one motivation that’s kept her going all this time, the necessity of keeping her son safe. It’s as unsettling for us to watch her unravel as it must be for Jack, since his mother always seemed so strong to him before. Having displayed such resilience and fortitude while trapped in Room all those years, keeping it together for her son’s sake, she crumbles now that there are others to take some of the burden off her shoulders, meaning she no longer has to be his one means of support. With so much more room comes a growing distance between mother and son where before they’d always been joined at the hip, having nowhere else to go to get away from each other. The two begin to spend more and more time apart, with Joy ordering this noisy little boy to go downstairs so she can sleep for instance, and later being admitted to the hospital for extended observation following a suicide attempt. It’s the very fact that there are now walls between them that allows Joy to swallow a bottle of pills behind closed doors. Battering his way into the bathroom, only by tearing down those walls does Jack manage to save her life in time. As the grandmother tells him, family is there to help one another, just as Jack’s presence helped keep his mother from losing her mind in that shed. He’s the one here who keeps displaying unsuspected reserves of strength, assuming the adult role, telling his mother he picks for both of them the way she did back in Room. Like many of his quixotic notions, Jack believes his long hair gives him his strength, as it did Samson, who was also blind, blinkered from seeing the world as it really was, even if, like his grams, we can’t help wishing there had been a pair of pruning shears in that garden shed. Yet this stray story strand, so carefully braided in, prepares us for a beautifully realized payoff toward film’s end when he sends his mother that lock of hair she needs more than he does now, restoring her strength in much the way it was intended to. The fact that he’s now able to let that security blanket go proves how well he’s adjusting, that Joy wasn’t the awful mother she’d been made to feel she was.
Having never been separated before, both these arrested adolescents need to be on their own for a little while, to find out who they are, and do some soul searching before they’re ready to fully adjust to civilian life. In his mother’s absence, Jack begins branching out, finding more people to populate his world beyond the woman who was everything to him before, making friends with the boy next door, catching his grandmother Nancy (Joan Allen, in a seeming screen test for her new, similarly themed ABC drama Family) off guard by saying he loves her. His presence proves a blessing, affording her a second chance to raise a child after being deprived of the experience with her first one. When his mother responded that they couldn’t have a dog because there wasn’t enough space for one in Room, there being hardly enough room for the two of them to move around themselves, he’d simply invented one as an invisible friend. Knowing it to be a scientific fact that animals are therapeutic healers for the emotionally and developmentally disabled, Nancy’s partner Joe (Tom McCamus), the only non-threatening male in the picture, eventually brings his dog back into the house, allowing it to take the place of the imaginary one Jack had made up for companionship while in captivity. This dog motif is maintained throughout, with Joy relating that Old Nick managed her abduction by convincing her he needed help with a sick dog, which didn’t exist anymore than Jack’s invisible one. The final appropriation of the genuine article, a real live dog as opposed to the shadow presence that’s been floating through proceedings heretofore is meant to signal Jack’s complete adjustment to the real world. Taking baby steps, one day at a time, both mother and son are babes in the woods venturing out on their own for the first time. Still shaping their opinions and forming their characters, discovering their likes and dislikes, they approach life much as if embarking upon a quest, approach life as adventurously as Dora the Explorer, Jack’s favorite cartoon. There’s so many things to do, places to go, people to see they’ll never want for entertainment, leaving Jack agog at all he’s managed to absorb at five he never even suspected existed before. So overwhelmed at first by the new sensations he’s confronted with, Jack keeps sponging things up like a newborn, John Locke’s Tabula rasa, scouting things out, getting his bearings, marking his territory. The window now opened on the world and Jack having climbed through, he can never again be shut up in his former dungeon of ignorance and darkness, any more than Helen Keller could after learning words have meaning. With the door to the shed permanently removed and taken as state’s evidence, his Room is left a prison no longer, but free and unfettered, open to the elements.
The industry loves one-act wonders like this, where a performer or two can hold the screen and the audience spellbound virtually single-handed, as young Tremblay and Brie Larson manage to do in the first half. Having been awarded a richly warranted Academy Award for this role, Larson’s complete lack of actor’s vanity, forgoing makeup in the early scenes, increases her cred. When she’s coerced to accept a Prime time interview, with which those in the film biz can readily identify, the bane of celebrity notoriety in our media obsessed age, the scene is staged like those in Gone Girl. It’s the one moment in the movie in which the actress is allowed to get all gussied up, given the full blown Hollywood treatment, and she looks ravishing, every bit the glamour girl ready for her close-up.
Larson’s sincere, heartbreaking performance seems artificial only once, when she’s purposely trying to put on an act for Old Nick, which is forgivable, since the character she’s playing is not a trained actress, even if it causes us to then question why Old Nick would swallow her patently phony ploy. My only real quibble has nothing to do with the playing of Larson herself, but rather the almost tangential way her character has been written into proceedings by Donoghue. This is the child’s story really, the focus on his interactions with the world around him, and because the entire thing is supposed to be told through his eyes we remain outside the Joy character, looking in. His mother assures him there are two sides to everything, but the way the film is structured, we don’t see Joy’s side the same way we do Jack’s. Donoghue’s script does the mother a disservice, pulling away from her as her son is forced to, abandoning her at the very moment we want to know more about what’s going on in her head. Accorded more screen time than she has, there’s not enough Joy in the second part after she’s been hospitalized, and maybe too much of Jack. So disappointingly we don’t get to see how she interacts with those friends in the high school track picture she pulls out, and who she resents for having had the chance to experience a full life, growing up in a way she was denied, or how she responds to the larger world and everything she needs to be apprised of to be brought up to speed herself. Raised by a single mother in a small studio apartment under constrained circumstances, Larson was homeschooled before being hijacked by Hollywood as a teenager, so must know what it means to be both shut in and to have her development as a normal, carefree child peremptorily arrested at a young age. She’s been appearing in movies like Hoot, 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now, Scott Pligrim vs. the World, Don Jon and others since she was a kid herself, as well as TV shows like the Emmy-nominated The United States of Tara with Toni Collette. But critics didn’t become kindly disposed toward her until her performance in Short Term 12 last year, shepherding even more emotionally disturbed kids through troubled waters. Far from a household name, mainstream audiences are probably more familiar with Larson from Amy Schumer’s popular Trainwreck last summer, but Room is the part that’s put her on the map. I adore the earnest, no nonsense way she levels with Jack, without condescension, when explaining things to him, complementing his intelligence, making him feel terribly clever and capable despite his confusion, buoying him with such reassurances as “I know you’ve been wondering about this” and “You’re smart, I know you can get this.”
Larson’s relative anonymity works to her advantage in Room. Because we haven’t come to associate her with any star persona, we don’t know where she’s going to take us. Her status as an unknown quantity to mass audiences makes us uncertain how far the film’s going to go with her in the first section, so we can accept events as more genuine and ‘real’ than we would have been able to had a more recognizable name been cast in this part. When more familiar actors like Joan Allen and William H. Macy do show up as the grandparents for instance, we crash back to earth hard, being forcibly reminded we’re just watching a movie after all. The near beatific tone which had been sustained up to that point is instantly shattered. Suddenly we’re right back in a Hollywood flick, and the story begins seeping into conventional, overly familiar cliché, when everything should still seem fresh and new to us to mirror Jack’s own perceptions. Room is practically forced to retrench at this midway point, shift tones and establish a different sort of expressive pitch which, while emotionally satisfying in its own right, never really equals the verisimilitude of what came before.
The escape from the shed would have been the end of most movies, which probably would have started with Joy’s abduction in the first place. But for Room this simply serves as a further jumping off place. Given the relatively of time as it ticked by in the shed, life seemed to move at a slower pace, causing Jack to confuse his calendar and jumble up the years, insisting he wanted a candle on his cake when his birthday rolled around again next week. Unraveling himself from that rug during his escape attempt, he suddenly finds himself travelling faster than he ever has in his life. He’s so entranced watching the world whiz past from the back of that pickup he almost forgets to make a run for it. Now in the real world he believes there’s less time ‘because it has to be spread out over all the places.’ With events rushing by too swiftly in the hectic hustle and bustle of the modern world, he no longer feels able to slow down and appreciate the finer things in life, as he’d been able to do before. The suddenly accelerated pace, compared to the heretofore unhurried one he’s always known, also serves to change the rhythm of the movie, the pacing picking up considerably once the kidnap victims are released back into the population. Like Plato’s prisoner once freed, to this boy who’s never ventured out into the sun, emerging from his darkened, interior state proves overwhelming initially, as he’s blinded by the light. Unable to walk or talk, he’s struck dumb. As in the Allegory of the Cave, he’s overwhelmed by the illumination of enlightenment, the acquirement of knowledge. So much so he must wear shades to shield his eyes, and sunscreen and extra layers of clothing to insulate his sallow, Vitamin D deprived skin. Coming into full sentient consciousness forces his mind to expand beyond its previously limited horizons, and the movie cleverly employs distorted, blurred visuals and a slurred, stylized soundtrack to simulate Jack’s initial impression of this new world, all the strange, inhumanly amplified sights, sounds, smells, sensations washing over him for the first time. Caught like a deer in the headlights of these impressions bombarding him, he’s too overwhelmed to function at first. What we seem witness to is birth trauma, with Jack rolling up into a fetal position from too much sudden stimulation to his five senses. Virtually catatonic, he’s able to concentrate on just one fixed point, focusing all his energy on the kind of leaf he’d only been able to watch falling onto the skylight, so far out of reach before. To Jack, this outside world is ‘like all TV planets’ turned on at the same time, in constant motion, with so many impressions constantly inundating the human senses and psyche one doesn’t know where to look. He must master the art of zoning things out, learn to channel surf without a board, as we all must do to stay focused. Once they’ve made their escape, and Jack wakes from his prolonged dream into full lucid consciousness for the first time, he finds himself transported to a brand new world of unfamiliar textures, colors, fabrics, sights (such as the unlimited cityscape seen from that hospital room), sounds (jumping in alarm at the unfamiliar ringing of a phone), and concepts (he’s never imaged taking a standing shower instead of a sitting bath). He could be forgiven for believing he’s on another planet, especially given the way the streaming sun glints off the sterile, whitewashed hospital environment, making it appear very much like a space station in some futuristic timeframe. Having been holed up with him for the first part of the movie, it all seems slightly unreal and otherworldly to us as well, too open and airy, making him feel small, vulnerable and exposed. The movie makes one appreciate the overwhelming vastness of this world outside in the same way Jack does, enhancing the awe-inspiring, overpowering effect it has on him.
Though his mother assured him the world was much closer than he thought, to Jack everything lying without the shed had seemed as distant and remote as a twinkling star. When he gazed up at the heavens through the skylight he might have been primitive man contemplating the course of the stars while believing the moon was made of cheese. To Jack’s mind, the world beyond his interior was an ‘outer’ space, a frighteningly hostile, alien environ he’d never seriously contemplated reaching or being able to survive in. Trying to alert passersby for help, mother and son screamed into the air ducts and vents, the noise reverberating in the hollow space like an echo chamber. He’s convinced they’re trying to contact alien life forms, as those populating the world outside first seem to Jack, having never known anyone but the woman who raised him.
The movie may dabble with the possibility that Jack misses the warm, safe, womb-like room he inhabited before being rudely thrust out into the world, but it stops short at suggesting that the conventional world he encounters outside may be, for all its stimulating possibilities, lacking in something, devoid of that sense of surreal magic and wonder that Room held for him, and us given the wondrously cinematic approach taken to its depiction. Under Abrahamson’s guidance, cinematographer Danny Cohen’s camera maneuvered around these close quarters with an astonishing degree of dexterity. The art direction by Ethan Tobman was on spot as well, making us intimately acquainted with this space until we’d come to know every inch as Jack did. It feels as homey and lived in as the hospital and grandmother’s house seem sterile and coldly impersonal to him later.
Though the camera is likewise liberated from its shackles once outside, Room’s more conventional second half actually gives the moviemakers far less opportunity to dazzle us with their agile cinematic artistry than they’d had when stuffed into that small space like sardines. When the movie is siphoned through Jack’s highly colored consciousness during the first half it’s brilliant, less so when the camera takes a more objective, less visionary stance that makes things seem far more routine in the second, cluing audiences they’re back in Kansas. With its later part open and first half shut in, Room is essentially split into separate sections, and it was a daunting challenge for director Abrahamson to find a way to both emphasize the tight confines of the setting, while still giving his camera enough visual lift and brio to not drive audiences stir crazy within it. Because the camera was never made to feel chained down, nailed to the floor, viewers hardly ever felt restlessly trapped within a chamber drama. He approached his limited arena with all the innovative brilliance of a spatial logistician, maneuvering his camera into every possible nook and cranny in order to explore this alternative space. The film makers find a way to create a completely self-enclosed, fully realized world within the maddening restrictions, worlds within worlds, such as when Jack is placed in that wardrobe during Old Nick’s visits, squeezing himself into ever tighter confines, like a Russian nesting doll.
By the time they make their escape, this room had become such a real, personable, fully realized place to us, fully deserving of being accorded the movie title, we can almost understand why Jack might miss the comfort and security of home. Asking at the end of their arduous, eventful first day out if they can go to bed, he’s referring to the one back in Room, the only one he’s ever known. Eventually admitting to missing it, he’ll even return to Room for a final visit, to say goodbye, as many people do their birth places, laying the past to rest. Finding it looks far different than what he remembers before he had any real concept of the great vastness of the world at large, he asks if it’s shrunken, which is precisely what we’re wondering, knowing the early scenes couldn’t have been filmed so tight in (they were actually shot on a studio soundstage, carefully constructed to conform to the dimensions of the actual shed itself). With the camera in constant motion, always finding fluid new angles to visually excite the eye, it never seemed that small to us either. So we’re as startled as Jack is to be confronted with how tiny Room actually was, a glorified mousetrap which had served as our entire universe as well. This final revelation upon his return is the film’s most astonishing coup d’état.
Though adapted from a novel, Room has been so richly realized onscreen I can’t fathom it working as well in any other medium. No other art form besides cinema could have exploited as effectively the expansive, wide open vistas outside the shed, as well as their negation into the minutest of constricted spaces within it, enhancing the impression by contrast. A made-for-TV movie, with viewers watching at home behind locked doors could have invoked the proper sense of intimate interiors, but never conveyed the overpowering sensory sensations that are magnified tenfold by a theatrical screen, so that they impact audiences almost as forcefully as they do Jack. In a darkened theater, we’re forced to fixate on the screen with such intensely focused concentration and undivided attention, the slightest light and least amplified audio noise can possess all the resounding resonance of a sensory deprivation chamber. But while Jack ultimately sees past the shadows on the wall, to a truer reality, no attempt is made, as it logically should be, to extend this same reach to those of us in the audience watching these graven images on screen, ourselves prisoners in Plato’s cave, only to bravely venture back out into the sun afterwards, blinded by the light. As in Descartes’ dream argument we too have been tricked for the duration into believing the shadows we saw were reality, a world unto themselves.