Room: Startling and Captivating.
My final stop on the Academy Awards list of films nominated for best picture was Room. I had been hoping to catch this film for nearly a month, but a finicky release schedule left me unable to fit it into my schedule. This week, Room was finally available for streaming, and I pulled the trigger. I was not disappointed. The acting in this film is excellent, the plot is engaging and well paced, and the imagery is often moving in subtle ways. A bit of sleeper on the nomination list, I hope good things happen for this film come Sunday.
Joy (Brie Larson) is young woman trying to raise her five year old son, Jack, to the best of her abilities. Her situation may seem common, until you realize that she and her son are trapped in a single room. Their only contact with the outside world is a man called Old Nick, their captor. As Jack begins to understand the nature of their predicament, Joy desperately hatches a plot to win Jack his freedom from their prison cell called Room.
Walking a Fine Line
Based upon the description and the trailers, I knew Room was going to have to walk a fine line. If it dwelled too much upon the the pairs confinement, it could easily become a simple thriller, akin to Panic Room. If it spent too much of its run time on Jack’s experience of the wider world outside Room, it risked having the confinement become a simple plot device to get to a coming of age story. Room manages to keep the best of both elements, playing its cards extremely close to the vest for nearly the entire run time. The anxiety and terror of Room is deftly blended with everyday occurrences, such as Jack’s birthday party, fights between a mother and child about rules, and the idiosyncrasies of how a young child experiences his environment. The film hesitates to state the terrible nature of their captivity as long as possible, instead creating tension and dread as we realize that nothing is normal about their situation.
Once out of Room, I was afraid the film would lurch from anxiety to a sappy celebration of life…but Room is nearly as gripping and fraught with peril outside of the prison cell as it is inside of it. Very early into Joy and Jack’s freedom, we realize that their isolation and paranoia, and the prying eyes of the world around them have made them virtual prisoners again, only this time in a larger cell.
A Powerful Presence
The acting is phenomenal in this piece. Brie Larson was rightly nominated for her performance, as she defies any attempts to pigeon-hole her character with easy stereotypes. She is the strong and protective mother…but also young, fragile, and given to crushing depression that isolates her from the world and even her son. Her tough facade often falters, and we see a real person: an abused woman, stolen from her life at an extremely young age, and forced to grow up under horrendous conditions. Her personal maturation is naturally stunted and easily upset, and Larson is unafraid to show every element of her character, even the ugly bits, to the camera. Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack, is a delight…even when he’s being a childish snot. There’s no artifice to his character, making all of his actions and emotions resonate as real and painfully recognizable. Instead of a petulant or saccharine caricature of childhood, Jack is his own person, despite his age. He can storm and pout, but he can also comfort and seek comfort, and is eminently relatable.
Minor roles in the film are filled with excellent talent. Joan Allen, who plays Joy’s mother, is tremendous, as is Tom McCamus who plays Leo, the new man in Joan’s life who has helped her stay strong during the long ordeal. Both interact genuinely and wonderfully with Joy and Jack, and really help cement the second half of the film. William H. Macy plays Joy’s estranged father, and he is likewise strong in his role, but his role quickly disappears from the plot, which seems like a shame since it addresses many fraught issues about accepting the hard choices a survivor has had to make.
Wonder and Terror
The cinematography is strong, yet understated. There a many nice shots of both Room and the outside world from Jack’s perspective that capture the many ambivalent qualities of each. Room is not a literal hell, and Jack has made friends with every object in it. Once outside, he is rightly terrified of every new sensation just when you would hope that the horror of his ordeal has finally ended. The unified ethic of the imagery allows much exploration of both the nature of the pairs captivity and their reticence in rejoining the wider world.
No Easy Answers
Room works so well because it shows very much, while telling very little. Everything you take from this film is your own, with no heavy-handed moralizing or pat answers to how or why such an abhorrent situation not only happened, but went on for so long. It blends it’s dual natures together expertly and allows strong performances to have the final word. Many I have talked to were hesitant to see this film because of the tough subject matter. I have to say, if you find yourself in that camp, Room is more than worth the hard issues it raises as it ends up redeeming them through the thoroughly human interactions of its characters.