In this shattering adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel, a woman held prisoner by her kidnapper for seven years must finally tell her son that there is in fact a world outside the walls of their makeshift cell.
“You’re going to love it,” Ma (Brie Larson) tells her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) not long after his fifth birthday in the locked garden shed that has been her prison for the past seven years. “The world.” In other circumstances, that might seem a risky promise. What if the world doesn’t live up that sell?
But Ma knows Jack has almost nothing to compare it to. In his mind, the entire universe is relegated to these four walls and all the objects inside it, most of which he has personalized like characters in a children’s book: “toilet”, “lamp”, “meltedy spoon”. She has him convinced that everything else, all the things they see on their TV, are just made up, and that they and their captor are the only people who exist.
In fact, it’s she who will face the most issues upon reentry. Unlike Jack, Ma knows what they’re missing. In the words of a doctor, he’s “still plastic”. She’s not.
Lenny Abrahamson’s darkly shimmering Room is a pointedly lyrical but still gimlet-eyed story. Given its scenario of imprisonment and a mother and son’s titanium-like bond, the film could have been an unrelentingly grim or sentimental slog. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also handled the screenplay, it starts as claustrophobic as Ma and Jack’s lives. Abrahamson keeps his camera close, as though it had nowhere else to go in that cramped space.
Jack wakes up on his birthday a beaming ball of sunshine joy, wishing each of their simple possessions “good morning”. He’s so full of five-year-old optimism and impatience that there’s almost no room left in there for his mother.
As Ma, Larson channels a bone-deep exhaustion that goes beyond the hollow eyes and slow-motion sluggishness; this is somebody who literally would have stopped having a reason to live if it hadn’t been for needing to get Jack through it. Larson deftly dances Ma close to depressive collapse without veering into blank catatonia or look-at-me mania. Even though she reads as a person who always needs either twelve hours of sleep or three espressos, Ma does everything she can to make the impossibly grim reality of their life into some variation of a normal kid’s life, complete with games, regular meals, and storytime.
Their imprisonment isn’t just a matter of fighting off boredom. Ma’s kidnapper, Old Nick (Sean Bridges), a defeated and unemployed pile of volatile inadequacy, regularly clumps into the room via a keypad-controlled door, leaves just enough groceries to keep them from starving, and rapes Ma while Jack stays quiet behind the closet doors. Almost as though to defend against the question that a judgmental outside world will ask, Ma tells Jack about the one time she tried to fight her way out; her bruised wrist and a shattered toilet tank top was the only result.
In the meantime, Old Nick seems content to play this demented version of house, after having kidnapping Ma off the street at 17 and keeping her as his brutalized prisoner in order to create some kind of domesticity. Making Old Nick almost more frightening is that he seems to derive no pleasure out of this, only going through the motions and griping about how much the two are costing him as though he were some hen-pecked husband and not the monster of a million parents’ nightmares.
It’s in that matter-of-fact presentation where Abrahamson is most successful. In last year’s Frank he took the absurd adventures of an avant-garde rock band and played them straight. Here as well he refuses to layer on the whimsy. There is just enough beauty here, the elegantly emotive score and Jack’s flights of fancy narrated in a high sing-song, to keep it from drowning in darkness, but not enough to cheapen what's at stake here. By the time the story moves to the outside world, the contrast of sights and sounds is nearly as blinding to us as it is to Jack and Ma.
Artists better than Abrahamson might have blinked at that point and indulged in some shameless tear-mongering. But while the second half of the film is seeded with numerous moments of shattering release, Abrahamson and Donoghue never lose sight of the fact that they are telling the story of a trauma seven years in the making and not easily undone. Instead of pinpointing the aspirational brand of individual exceptionalism that so often characterizes these kind of stories, Room pays attention to the tactile pleasures of the everyday and the bruised resilience of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Once released from her role as Jack’s sole protector, it’s as though the strings holding Ma up have been cut. The horror of what they endured comes flooding back almost worse than when she was experiencing it. She recedes from the pressing demands of both her parents, nervous to reunite with this daughter they’d thought dead, and the cameras of a press hungry for another story about a resilient young bold mother who never lost hope.
Room then becomes more the tale of Jack’s slow, emerging adaptation to this world he is discovering anew each day, years of childhood unpacked all at once. It’s beautiful and terrifying, like the film itself.