Movies produce varied emotions: action flicks spew artificial feelings, a deep contrast to the artistic gratification emerging from “Room”. An audience winner at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the film is picking up international critical acclaim for its depiction of a harrowing life experience.
“Room” focuses on the horrors of abduction and sexual brutality. A mother (Joy) and son (Jack) trying to adapt to the outside world after years of forced captivity. Simply told, it captures their drastic life change from the perspective of a five-year-old who has never known the outside world. His existence is shaped by being sealed in a miniscule environment he thinks is normal. It’s the type of subject ripe for tabloid sensationalism (although that aspect is used for a specific purpose), but as uncomfortable as the subject is, director Lenny Abrahamson’s film encapsulates an aura of optimism that sweeps away the claustrophobia of a 10 by 10 foot garden shed prison holding young Jack and his mother, Joy who was kidnapped seven years ago, at 17, for reasons that are at first withheld from the audience. . Ever since, she has been a sex prisoner of her captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), meaning Jack is his son.
The kidnapper brings supplies every week and takes the opportunity to rape Joy on each occasion. One wonders why Joy wouldn’t simply tie her captor’s hands to the bed while he’s asleep and hold him captive until he gives up the security code to the locked door. Strangely, to prevent possible physical assault on her son, she illogically instructs Jack to play dead on the assumption that Nick won’t bother to check whether the kid is still breathing before burying him.
Equal parts thriller, mother and son love story, and the eventual coping with the outside world, “Room” is a deeply moving and suspenseful drama that often has the power to emotionally devastate. It’s amazing how a dreary circumstance can live up to the transformative performances of its leads, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who turn in astonishing and passionate performances.
The first 40 minutes or so slowly reveal what has happened before the movie starts: it’s rather lethargic in expanding the plot and limp in its psychology. The script, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own 2010 Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, doesn’t fully illuminate what kind of internal damage might be wrought by being held prisoner for seven years: leaving that chore to the viewer. The sense is we’ll accept their inner suffering while commiserating with their grim reality.
Donoghue, the Irish-Canadian mother of two says, “I often felt like a (expletive) mother for writing this book. Especially when I’d go on book tour, and my daughter was only 3 at the time, and people would say to
me, ‘You must be such a good mom,’ and I’d think, ‘My 3-year-old is at home going, “Where is she?’ Writing about such a good mother makes me hyper-aware of all the moments when I’m not a good mother.”
Donoghue took a furlough from her family again to collaborate with director Lenny Abrahamson in adapting the material to film. The story is narrated exclusively by Jack, who is unaware of a world beyond “Room’s” four walls is a unique device and care had to be taken not to mar the quality of the material.
The movie rekindles an unexplained case of Stockholm syndrome where the victim(s) prefer captivity to freedom. Director Abrahamson explores this aspect to a point with dingy, muted colors and tight, widescreen close-ups that deliberately frustrate our sense of space, putting the viewer in extremely close quarters with Jack and Joy.
“Room” is one of the more rewarding page-to-screen adaptations in some time with a straight-ahead plot preserving the mother-child relationship and delivers an emotional wallop about the power of motherly love. It’s the act of motherhood — parenting in general, really — that Donoghue feels “Room” most directly addresses, and, moreover, most deeply resonates with its audience.
“Room” is an unusual film that entertains with a sense of urgency, forcing viewers to confront personal reactions to a “what if” situation.
Currently “Room” is playing in select markets, but a wide breakout is possible with the mounting acclaim and possible Oscar buzz it’s attracting.
Written by: Alex Reynolds