Books make for good film fodder – there’s a dramatic story readily available to tell with its sales numbers a calculated forecast of its anticipated success. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room has certainly captured this spirit with the eponymous book by Emma Donoghue. While the story of kidnap and captivity in a small room for years is not an unfamiliar one, it’s still a difficult one to tell with the right variety of twisted seriousness.
We are introduced to “Room” in Room immediately. Jack’s – son of protagonist Joy and her captor – mentholated voice-over covers footage of a small 10 by 10 room as he sets the tone for the blue-tinged imagery. “Once upon a time, before I came, you cried and cried and watched TV all day until you were a zombie. But then I zoomed down from heaven through ‘Skylight’ into ‘Room.’ And I was kicking you from the inside. Boom! And then I shot out onto ‘Rug’ with my eyes shot open. And you cut the cord and said, ‘Hello, Jack.’” The camera stalls on a single skylight window no bigger than a square foot, a sky blue light barely illuminates “Room” like a mirage to safety. Right away, we’re well-aware that this storyline is a little maudlin, a little creepy. The aura of Canadian dormancy is heavy – empty spaces and grey skies echo themes of forlorn isolation. “Room” feels claustrophobic and eerie. And you’ll certainly feel it; a brisk walk or jog or full-speed sprint outside in beautiful bright sunshine is in due order after watching.
Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson) has raised a healthy young son thus far, teaching him enough to know about “World” – the one unbeknownst to him – without lying. But of course, the growing pang to climb out of this desperate situation becomes dire. After all, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) is five now, and his ideas about “World” are expanding enough for Joy’s answers to serve dissatisfying. “What you see on TV – those are pictures of real things, of real people. It’s real stuff…That’s real oceans, real trees, real cats, real dogs. Come on, Jack, you’re so smart,” Joy desperately explains to Jack. Jack looks down, thinking for a moment, and gives up. “Can I have something else to eat?” he asks. Joy closes her eyes, defeated.
Joy carries her role as Jack’s mother and teacher of all things in Jack’s tiniest universe in this horrible situation with dignity and grace. Temper is rarely lost; anxiety is never shown. But something about her lauded composure also watered down her complexity. The woman’s been held captive inside of a garden shed for seven years for God’s sake. She deserves a nervous breakdown or two every once in a while. At best, Joy in Room resembles a lonely single mother: bored, maybe, but not even mirthless. This is a mishap to the frantic hopelessness that must engulf her psyche.
The reality of the situation is more obviously sinking its teeth into Jack. His screaming outbursts are not unlike a five year-old, but without ample stimulation and a dire curiosity left lingered by lack of fulfilling answers, he is more and more difficult by the day. We listen to his ennui-ridden screams at his mother; we see his confusion churn with fear on his expressive young face as his mother prepares him for escape; we see his eyes freeze open when he catches his first glimpse of blue sky, albeit from the back of a moving truck mid-escape. Tremblay’s performance as Jack is what makes us understand the gravity of Room’s trembling disturbance. Joy is omega to Jack’s alpha; the rest of the characters are satellites to his wellbeing.
Joy’s overall lack of intensity is not to deem that the film did not pay its own dues otherwise. One of the most notable gems of Room is its understanding that consequences to this situation are not black and white. There are murky shades of grey that seep deep into the way everyone affected by Joy’s disappearance processed her return. Joy’s father couldn’t bear to look at Jack despite Joy’s furious insistence. Her mother is seemingly less than merry at her return, and Joy – whom we must remember is still yet a young woman herself – captiously reproaches her stillness like a child throwing a larger tantrum to punish her unmoved parents. “You don’t need me…you’ve been doing just fine without me,” she complains through tears. Joy’s mother looks at her, incredulously. “How can you say that…Do you think that you’re the only person whose entire life was ruined?!” There is no guidebook on life after your kidnapped daughter returns; everyone is dealing with the emotional consequences of Joy’s homecoming the way they best can, tiptoeing silently around broken glass but ultimately leaving the shards in place. They will, after all, always be there.
Room is painfully raw in its emotionality. It has to be, with subject matter as difficult to digest as this. Need be, keep your running shoes nearby.
Written by Dara Kim