In the cinematic landscape we are fed quite a few “power of love” concepts over the course of a year, heck, in storytelling in general. Rarely however, have I seen that idea tackled with as much rigorous raw emotion as Room and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film that had me as thoroughly convinced that love can truly conquer the most heinous atrocities.
Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who then adapted it into the screenplay as well, the story centers on Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson) Joy who have been held captive in a gardening shed for years (Ma for seven and Jack for five) by the sick and violent Old Nick (Sean Bridges). When Old Nick arrives, Ma puts Jack in a dresser so that he can’t see her being assaulted by their captor, trying to retain some of his innocence. She’s told Jack that outside of room is outer space, and then heaven, so that he won’t ever get curious or concerned about what lays outside their walls. However, one day the power is cut and Ma begins to worry just how much longer the two of them will be able to survive.
The room where Jack and Joy have been held captive for years is all that 5 year old Jack has ever known and in it he finds happiness, mainly because of the world Joy has drawn for him. They have four walls, a few chairs, a bed, a toilet, a skylight that looks out into the blue skies and the fresh air that Jack has never taken a breath of and yet in room Jack has the warmth of his Ma’s love, he has entertainment and exercise, he even get’s to make a birthday cake. Childish awe and wonder, coupled with Ma’s astute determination has granted Jack the gift of ignorance to his situation.
Jack is saving Ma as much as she is, unbeknownst to him, saving Jack and it’s not too far fetched to believe that if Jack hadn’t come unexpectedly into Ma’s life that her fight would had died out much sooner. Jack gives her a purpose, someone to protect and adore and it’s because of this that she works out a way to try one last desperate attempt at achieving freedom.
If you’ve seen the trailers it shouldn’t be too surprising that Jack and Ma eventually make it out as Ma feigns Jack’s death due to the cold and bundles him up into a rug so that when Old Nick drives him away he can wriggle out, jump from the bed of the truck and run for help. The entire escape sequence is one of the most visceral experiences I’ve had in the theater this year, a truly exhilarating moment in a film that up to this point had been filled with moments of horror. I don’t claim to be an emotionally tough human being, especially when it comes to film, and this scene was chill inducing as I gasped as Jack rolled out of the rug and took in the world around him for the first time. Director Lenny Abrahamson shoots this scene in a manner that overwhelms our senses, mirroring how Jack is feeling as the wind is rushing past him, the bumps in the road give him wobbly knees and the sunshine hitting his skin causes him to squint. He’s in such unfamiliar territory and it makes the entire sequence so crushingly suspenseful and we wait for the ball to drop and something bad to happen until we can all collectively let go of the breath we didn’t know we were holding as he runs into a friendly stranger.
It’s this scene plus the build up to Jack and Ma’s reuniting that hold all of the power in the film. They are one another’s lifelines and Jack is desperate to get back to Ma. Both scenes exude a sense of freedom, whether it be in the outdoors and feeling snow on their skin, or in each others desperate embrace.
The second half of the film takes place outside of room as Jack and Ma both must adapt to life in the real world where their trauma isn’t so easily shaken as Ma would have hoped. Reunited with her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy) she moves back home with Jack and the two tentatively make steps towards realizing the life they were supposed to have while Ma desperately tries not to look back. It may not be as stylishly taut as the first 45 minutes of the film are, but the back half matches the first with it’s explosively emotional moments that are never less than engaging.
Tremblay and Brie make quite a pairing as the mother and son duo, effortlessly convincing the audience of their all encompassing love for one another. Brie, having already shown off her mighty dramatic skills in Short Term 12, is poised for stardom and Room has given her a bigger and greater launching pad than any film before her. Always seemingly talking herself off the edge, she plays Ma as the damaged, fearful but also desperately strong and protective of Jack. Tremblay is simply a revelation, not just a superb performance for a child, but one of the best I’ve seen this year period. Constantly inquisitive, emotional and fiercely devoted to Ma, he is the film’s heart and Ma’s pillar of strength. The two knock it out of the park and are dynamic as a pairing, both feeding off of the other’s energy.
If there’s anything to fault, I could point out how Macy’s father figure is given shamefully little to do and that the ending is tied up rather neatly for all of the drama that came before it, but after nearly two hours of the exhaustive, emotional gamut, I found it hard to complain. From the beginning to the very end, the film had me captivated as it showed Jack and Ma in the worst possible circumstance, to their very first steps into freedom, and then their first signs of hope. It’s an enormously powerful film, one wrought with emotional vulnerability as it shows the worst of human nature in Old Nick and the best in Ma and Jack and their unwavering love.
Even in the confines of their small, listless room, they were able to share a world together, one rich with love and once outside, it only grew, no longer contained by the four walls around them.
Room is out in theaters now.