The scariest thing about intimacy is sharing your partner with the rest of the world. Trusting those delicate threads is a demanding trick that some people never master. From lover to lover, or parent to sibling, their love becomes a smothering blanket. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s riveting new drama, Room, deconstructs our need to possess someone, as well as the terror of letting them go. While the film’s second half lacks the urgency of its mesmerizing opening, an observant script and amazing performances make Room one of 2015’s most gut-wrenching viewing experiences.
Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has no reason to believe his 5th birthday will be any different than the previous 4 years he’s spent entirely inside of Room. He tells each piece of rickety furniture “Hello!” and tries to make friends with a little mouse that somehow found its way inside this hermetically-sealed box. Imagine Jack’s surprise, then, when Ma (Brie Larson) reveals there is a great big world outside of Room. You see, Jack and Ma aren’t allowed to leave Room… ever. Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) keeps a security panel on the door and insists that Jack hide in the closet when he and Ma are “sleeping.” That other people and places exist beyond the confines of his tiny universe is a realization that both terrifies and fascinates Jack.
We don’t get many details about what happened before Jack was born. We know that Ma was abducted by Old Nick many years ago and that he is Jack’s biological father. The circumstances surrounding Jack’s conception and Ma’s subsequent refusal to give him up, however, form the thematic underpinnings of a deceptively simple premise. It’s only as the story unfolds, with Jack slowly embracing the vastness of life outside Room, that we realize how complicated the interpersonal dynamics are between he and Ma.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) has crafted something so subtle and elusive that it threatens to rip apart at any moment. He makes his single-room set piece more than just a character; it becomes the Black Box between our ears. We see the dynamics of control played out first between Old Nick and Ma, and then perpetuated (via rationalization) through Ma and Jack. Abrahamson wisely shies away from melodramatic speeches and grandstanding. Instead, he settles upon quiet moments of reflection and a subdued visual palette.
The result is an understated drama that will leave you shaken. Jack’s escape from Room may be the most heart-pounding scene of 2015, and when it’s over, you don’t know whether to shout with joy or sob uncontrollably. Narrating the action from Jack’s perspective also adds to the emotional investment, as we plunge headlong into a mind both overwhelmed and excited by what it sees. It’s the kind of unadulterated discovery that cinema often struggles to capture in an emotionally-engaging way. There is nothing clinical about Room; it’s all visceral and intimate.
Much of the film’s success can be directly attributed to the script by Emma Donoghue (adapted from her hugely successful novel of the same name). She delights in the tiny details and turn-of-phrase that build a nuanced world full of moral ambiguity and impossible decisions. Ma’s father (William H. Macy), for instance, is a good man that loves his daughter ferociously, and yet the very sight of Jack sickens him; an enduring symbol of the violation his daughter suffered at the hands of a monster. He’s not a bad man, just a good man thrust into an impossible situation. It’s Donoghue’s willingness to tackle these painful truths that makes Room such a successful adaptation from page to screen.
If Room has faults, they reside in a midsection doomed to feel inferior to the bravura opening act. There was simply no way to sustain that emotional pace, and when Room re-groups to examine the second chapter of Ma and Jack’s life, it lacks the same sense of urgency. The social commentary isn’t particularly sharp, either, as we’ve seen the media fervor for human tragedy in countless other films. Abrahamson wisely avoids dwelling on these broader topics, focusing, instead, on Ma’s struggle to loosen her grip on the only lifeline she’s ever known… Jack.
Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack is nothing short of miraculous. He knows when to be innocent, when to be wise, and when to be quiet. It’s the kind of performance that can catapult a child actor into the spotlight, for better or worse. Brie Larson is the model of quiet strength as Ma. She embodies the inner turmoil of a woman fighting for survival, even as it victimizes her most-cherished ally. Screen veterans Joan Allen and Tom McCamus do quality work in supporting turns, and Amanda Brugel plays the kind of dedicated cop that rekindles your respect for civil servants.
Room works extremely hard to earn every tear. That it succeeds is a tribute to a director who believed in the material, a writer who refused to soft-pedal the thematic ambiguities, and a cast that tackled each role with brutal honesty. At its heart, Room manages to find hope despite the unsavory realization that our instinct for self-preservation sometimes trumps everything… even maternal love. It’s not an easy film to watch, but the rewards far outweigh the hardship.