Room (2015)

8 Jan

Room-Brie-Larson-Jacob-Tremblay

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

DISCLAIMER: If you haven’t seen this film’s trailer, this review can contain a spoiler or two.

Not many films that are centered on a traumatic experience tend to focus on the aftermath. What do the characters who went through this go through when they return to the real world? How easy can it be just to get back to a normal life? Who’s welcoming them back and who breaks away? Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” adapted from the novel of the same name by its author, Emma Donoghue, would be a powerful film by itself if it just focused on the experience. But that’s only the first hour, and the film nearly elevates itself to “masterpiece” levels by focusing the remaining hour of running time on the after-effects. (This isn’t necessarily a spoiler. Those who have seen the trailer know that the imprisoned characters in “Room” are free by the halfway point.)

“Room” is what 5-year-old Jack (played by Jacob Tremblay) calls his world; the world he and his “Ma” (Brie Larson) have lived in his entire life; a world of one room, with a few pieces of furniture, electricity, plumbing, a TV, and a skylight in the ceiling; a world outside of which Jack has never set foot. You see, Jack’s mother was abducted a young age and kept in the garden shed in the backyard of her captor’s (Sean Bridgers) house. He raped her repeatedly and kept her locked up, and she gave birth to a boy, who he allowed for her to keep and raise by herself. She’s told him many lies about their “world,” shielding him from the truth, like an elaborate fairy tale. But now that Jack is 5, she can’t keep hiding things from him anymore and she sees that there’s a world out there that he needs to know about.

Eventually, Ma does convince Jack that there’s something more to what he’s been taught, and she gets him to help put her escape plan to action. It involves him playing dead so he can be removed from “Room” and run for help. The plan ends up working, Ma is rescued, and she and Jack are free at last.

End of movie? No. It was just the first act of “Room,” the film, and it leads to a brilliant second act, in which Ma and Jack have to deal with normality. And it’s not quite as optimistic as one may think. Yes, they’re free from their captor, but what happens next? Everything now feels strange and kind of unnerving.

The first hour of “Room” is excellent. It’s kept entirely in this room. The sense of claustrophobia can’t be ignored, as it makes for a really tense atmosphere. You get a good feel of how these people have lived for so long in a world they didn’t make (literally and figuratively), and it really helps that the whole long sequence is seen through Jack’s perspective—you hear his narrations (which sound like whimsical Dr. Seuss phrasings), see the world practically through his eyes, and only leave “Room,” the actual room, when he’s brought out. Also, the scene in which he has to escape is the most suspenseful scene in the entire film; even when you know he’s going to break free, it takes its time getting to that point, stretching out the anxiety.

The second hour of this two-hour film is surprisingly even more fascinating, as we’re brought into “the real world” with these two people. Ma (whose legal name is Joy) is reunited with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), who have divorced since her capture, and Jack is brought in to live with his grandmother and her new boyfriend. But as it turns out, Jack is slowly but surely learning independence and what it truly means to be a kid, while Ma hasn’t gotten over the experience she’s had to deal with in the last seven years. She’s haunted by memories, unsure of her “second chance at life,” and isn’t sure what to do next. See the film in its entirely, with context, and this is all the more compelling. Credit for that goes to director Abrahamson, who is able to balance out the blatant and the subtle, which helps make the complex material come alive even more.

If not for the outstanding acting throughout the film, “Room” wouldn’t have been as successful. In order for us to feel the characters’ plight, the actors have to sell it. Coming into the film, I already had a good feeling about Brie Larson, one of my favorite actresses working today, and boy was I right. This is not only her strongest performance since “Short Term 12” two years ago; as Ma/Joy, this is undoubtedly the best work of her career by far. And not only that, but she’s also able to portray two different versions of the same character—one is Jack’s image of his “Ma” and the other is the mentally tortured & broken woman who tries to deal with life after seven years of captivity. It’s to Larson’s credit that we can fully understand this character even if characteristics of her are not fully seen by Jack or the audience. She’s marvelous in this film. And then there’s little Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack. With a child this age, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew with a solid director guiding him, he could provide work strong enough for the material. (Actors have to put a lot of trust in their directors, and child actors are no exception.) Thankfully, Tremblay is able to portray Jack as a real, disillusioned little boy who’s also bright, articulate, and able to adjust (though with some difficulty, of course). It’s a performance more natural and credible than most child acting of recent memory. Another strong performance I want to point out is from Joan Allen, as Joy’s mother who just wants her daughter back in her life and is willing to help her through anything in the post-kidnapping phase. It’s her best work in years. And the less I say about William H. Macy’s smaller but heartbreaking role, the better. (I’m already on the border of giving away more spoilers already.)

“Room” can be seen as either an uplifting drama about survival after misfortune, a partial thriller for the first act, or also as a psychological study about adjustment, transition, and effects. Either way, “Room” is a frank, challenging, and powerful film—one of the very best I’ve seen in 2015.

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