Mark Reviews Movies


ROOM (2015)

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, William H. Macy

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 10/16/15 (limited); 10/23/15 (wider); 11/6/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 22, 2015

The central mystery of the first act of Room is answered with little to-do but significant impact. It comes in a single scene that comprises two shot setups—one from the subjective viewpoint of a 5-year-old boy, as he looks through the shuttered door of a wardrobe, and the other of the boy's curious but impassive face. The scene's effect and the way it affects us are twofold: We see what the boy sees and comprehend the horror of what is unfolding, and then we see the boy, who has no understanding of the act playing out before him. Throughout the film, what we know and what the boy knows are continually at odds.

That becomes even more important as the world of the film expands beyond its initial confinement. The boy eventually grows to learn much about his circumstances, his mother, and the ways of the world. We find ourselves understanding less and less, especially about how all of this will turn out for the boy and his mother. That's the real mystery of the film, and the screenplay by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel of the same name) keeps it as such—a lingering question as the two central characters once again step forward from an old prison and into the world.

At that point in the film, we have already seen this particular movement play out once before—albeit in far more dramatic fashion. Ultimately, this is a film about trauma, so it only makes sense that it would literally revisit and retrace those steps. The wisest element of Donoghue's screenplay and director Lenny Abrahamson's approach to the material is the narrative's point of view. The film is told almost exclusively from the boy's perspective, but this is also the story of his mother. He has seen what has happened to her, but he does not understand the ramifications. The lesson, it seems, is that we can imagine or even witness the trauma of another person, but unless we have some first-hand experience of that kind of pain, we never will even begin to scratch the surface of comprehending it in any meaningful way.

The boy is Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and he calls his mother Ma (Brie Larson). She had a name once—not so much forgotten as unnecessary now. They live in a small room together, with a bed, a toilet, a refrigerator, a bathtub, a wardrobe, a table with some chairs, and a television. Jack wakes each morning and greets these accessories and pieces of furniture, as if their names were proper ones.

For Jack, there's Room and then the mysterious worlds of Space, which he can see through the skylight in the ceiling, and of Television, which, from his perspective, is the only place where other people and animals and plants that aren't the potted one in Room and everything else exist. Only Room is real for him.

The aforementioned scene, in which we learn the truth of the pair's situation, introduces the other key player in the first act. We don't see him in full at first, since our first glimpse is through the wardrobe doors, where Ma has Jack fall asleep. The man comes into Room, makes small talk with Ma, and then we see him undo his pants. With the sounds coming from the bed, we know what's happening, but Jack only knows this man as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who provides his prisoners with food, clothing, and any other essentials through "magic."

We learn that Ma has created an intricate lie for Jack to keep the reality of their captivity from him. Everything changes when Old Nick reveals that he has come upon hard times, and Ma realizes that their survival is at stake.

The way Abrahamson and Donoghue establish a conflict between our grasp of the stakes here and Jack's innocence is especially effective in the resulting scenes, as Ma comes up with a plan to free Jack. The specifics are best left unsaid, but the series of events climaxes in a heart-in-throat sequence that finds Jack nearly unable to contain his wonder, even as his very life is threatened. There's no manipulation here, because the writer-director team has so specifically laid out the way Jack's mind works through voice-over, his relationship with Ma, and visual cues such as the wardrobe scene. Tremblay's unaffected performance is a vital part to this, too. He's a natural.

In a very real way, the first act of the film—despite the prevalence of Jack's narration and point of view—puts us in Ma's place. We're looking at Jack through the protective eyes of a helpless observer.

The film shifts significantly after this, and so too does our perspective. From here on out, we really are looking at Ma, as if through Jack's eyes, and we repeatedly come up short in trying to determine her mental state. We get the gist, but there are layers of suffering from physical assaults, psychological torture, and the regret of a life that was never lived as it should have been.

On its surface, Larson's outstanding performance is one of a distinct duality. She's a pillar of resistance and unconditional caring in the first act, with traces of frustration appearing. As the film's world expands and with no external obstacle to overcome, she retreats into those traces (Later in the film, Abrahamson wisely maintains the claustrophobic compositions of the first act, because there are still prisons here—self-constructed ones now). She maintains an air of impenetrability that goes much deeper than the surface. We have an idea of what she's thinking and feeling, but there is too much here for her to express in any comprehensible way. Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, and William H. Macy—all of them very good—round out the cast as three characters who react in very different but entirely sympathetic ways to Ma and Jack's new circumstances.

The final note of Room retains that lack of easy explanations. It is not so much a resolution as it is a beginning. How many beginnings will these characters need before the pain of the past even comes close to being resolved? Perhaps this one step forward will not be followed by as many steps back. That's as good a start as any.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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