The first sounds we hear are breathing. Then a voice whispers “Go back to sleep.” Barely a light reaches the interior of the room and we see expressionist images that are startling; scratches on a wall, a dirty sink, a metal door, eggshells, linoleum, a tiny television set. These things are contained in a space barely 10 x 10, about the size of your average household laundry room. Within its walls resides a young woman who has been trapped here for seven years with her child who is frail and gaunt with a mop of hair so long and stringy that, until pronouns are slipped into place, I assumed was a girl. His name is Jack, and he was born here. He knows nothing of the outside world.
The basic concept of Room sounds like some kind of overzealous Lifetime Original Movie and in lesser hands it may very well have been exactly that. But here is a movie much smarter than the sum of its parts, a powerful human drama about the spaces we occupy both physically and mentally to contain the things that threaten to do us harm.
To Jack, his mother is known as Ma, but in the world she was Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and, through dialogue,we slowly understand how she came to be kidnapped and thrown into this tiny, drafty little room for over half a decade. She is the prisoner of a man known simply as Old Nick (Sean Bridger), a sadist who gives and takes privileges that vary with his mood. Yet, this is not an exploitation movie, as one might expect. Most of Nick’s worst deeds are only spoken about and when he comes by at night to visit Joy we are – mercifully – left out of the room.
In between the horrors of Old Nick, Joy and Jack eek out a living for themselves as Joy’s maternal instincts make Jack’s health and safety her number one priority. She also attempts to give his mind a wider expanse then his physical world. She tells him fairy tales, sings songs and they watch Dora the Explorer. The central focus of Room is Jack’s vantage point on the world. He has never seen the outside world save for the images that come through on the television set and the leaves and the rain that fall onto the skylight.
From here spoilers . . .
What every other review seems willing to reveal from the very first sentence without a spoiler warning (thanks for nothing, guys) is that Room is a two act play with a heart-stopping scene of escape that – I swear – left me out of breath. Yes, Jack and Joy escape, but it is what happens next that makes this one of the best movies of the year. What follows is their readjustment to the world. Joy must reconnect, but Jack must understand the expansive world beyond just the presence of two adults and four walls. It is through his eyes that the movie’s great drama comes to life.
Jack and Joy move into her parent’s house and the adjustment to the world is more than just hugs and catching up. This is not a thriller. There are not court room scenes. There is no phony drama involving the kidnapper (he disappears from the scene rather quickly). Joy’s relations with her parents are not always warm. We her struggle to adjust juxtaposed with Jack’s struggles to understand a world that both fascinates and frightens him. What is the world to him? He saw “room” as the entire planet, so what must he think of the larger world outside?
In spite of real-life parallels (I immediately thought of Jaycee Dugard) Room is neither a horror film nor a movie about criminals and victims. Instead it is about the confines that bond two people together. It’s about a mother and son who have been through a horrific tragedy but doesn’t make it worst by coating it with phony developments. This is the story of the human spirit and how it transcends physical boundaries, and the confines of external and internal freedoms. In the film’s first act, we deal with how Joy is able to establish domesticity for herself and Jack rather than the easy route of turning this into a shrieking horror show. “Room”, as Jack calls it, becomes a planet unto itself (until the escape, we the viewer never leave the room). And the performances make it all work. Brie Larson got an Oscar nomination for her great performance as Joy, but it is Jack that pulls the story together. Played in a beautiful performance by young Jacob Tremblay that will break your heart, he is that rare child actor who can emote without seeming precocious (he should have gotten a nomination as well).
The final scene of the movie brought me to tears, a reunion of sorts between Joy and Jack and their tragedy that allows them to close the door on their suffering. In the moment Jack makes a simple observation that pulls the entire emotional narrative right into place. It’s a perfect moment. What we are left with are reasonable questions. How to people survive under duress? What makes children so resilient? What happens to victims of horrible crimes once the phone stops ringing? How do they go on? How do they get on their feet again? Room leaves these questions and more. It is a powerful drama, thrilling, exciting, sad, joyful and one of the best films of the year.