The hole world
Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel Room, about abducted sexually abused Joy (Brie Larson) locked away in a garden shed with five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who was born in that shed is a harrowing experience, and not always in a good way. We are stuck in the company of two actors only one of whom is adult for almost two hours, one of those hours in extreme close quarters. We see most of the film through the child's eyes, hear his voice on the soundtrack as he tries to describe his emotional state in naive--sometimes too naive--prose. On occasion Jack screams, a high piercing sound that Abrahamson no doubt picked for that very quality; the director should have also been more aware that a brief sampling of that sound would have been enough--anything more would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Abrahamson--presumably taking his cue from Donoghue's book--focuses less on the story's lurid aspects (it's based on the far more horrifying Fritzl case) and more on the couple's survival strategies, at least during the film's first half; the second half documents a vaguer and in some ways equally horrifying struggle, as Joy tries to shrug free from the shackles in her head. Abrahamson isn't as successful at realizing this half, understandably so; how do you suggest inner captivity in the outside world? Larson does her level best, is at her best when an interviewer tactlessly suggests that she should have done better for her child: the emotions flitting over her face as she processes the idea register onscreen with piercing withering clarity.
Tremblay though does a better job of suggesting the consequences of captivity, and it's more in the nature of his character than any lack of talent on Larson's part (as she's shown in Short Term 12 Larson--whose previous acting experience has mainly been in comedy--has the uncanny ability to play abuse victims with great sensitivity). In the film's opening shot Abrahamson approximates Tremblay's view of the world, the camera floating past this toy and that, past sink and toilet bowl (the tank's lid conspicuously missing), past handmade decorations taped to the walls. We slowly come to realize that for Jack this room is his whole world, and Joy has carefully cultivated this fiction by explaining away every detail inside it: that the TV showed made-up images, that there is nothing outside of Room (except Old Nick--Joy's captor and abuser--who comes in with the occasional food and supplies). The film is at its alienating best depicting details of their life in Room: the hygiene and nutrition regimens Joy imposes on Jack (regular toothbrushing; not too much sweets), the desperately sad attempts to give Jack the semblance of a normal life (at one point waging an epic battle to bake a birthday cake).
When Jack emerges from Room (at a certain point you realize--and the actors speaking Donoghue's dialogue help you realize--that you're thinking of the noun in capitals, as a specific location (or character even) with a proper name) he's overwhelmed; he perversely wants to go back. Call it Stockholm Syndrome but for a place not person; Tremblay manages to make us understand that Jack longs for the simplicity of his mother's fiction, for the small womb that Room represents--the reality of the outside world is too complex and bewildering for him to like as easily.
That I submit is the story behind this story: that the film as Abrahamson has conceived it is not so much about Joy's captivity and liberation as it is about Jack's womblike gestation and eventual emergence. It's really told through Jack's point of view, from cocoonlike shelter to sudden release (the escape--Jack's inability to walk and talk, his confused state of mind--in many ways suggests a second birth); his vague and often unsuccessful attempts to reach out and find a role in this larger less comforting space. If you like the story is a metaphor for all of us, how we never stay in the same state for as long as we'd like, how we're constantly forced out and forced to shuffle our own way forward, how we may on occasion win the chance to revisit our womb and discover to our dismay that there's really no going back, ever.
Room as a tale of isolation and monstrous growth is perhaps not the most disturbing example of the genre (off the top of my head I'd cite Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth which is funnier, more horrifying, entirely free of sentiment) but does have its moments, particularly during the first hour and arguably its final scene (I could have done with less of Stephen Rennicks' piano score, which is pretty but overused). One of the better films of the year.
First published in Businessworld 2.19.16