Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Room: Review

One of the things we go to the movies for are sights unseen. These could be as elaborate as a meteor shower in space or a dinosaur towering over a child. But they can also be on a minute scale, like the gradual ageing of the protagonist in Boyhood or the sugar-cube absorbing coffee in Three Colours: Blue. Or the first 45 minutes of Room, which show us what it might be like to build a life—a world, really—in miniature.

In these 45 minutes, we see Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), negotiate the intimate contours of their very small universe. Piece by piece, we’re given fragments of their story: Joy was abducted when she was 17 by someone they know only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She has been held in captivity in his basement—which has a skylight, a bed, a bathtub, an oven, a TV and little else—for seven years, during which she has been raped repeatedly by Nick. Two years in, Joy became pregnant with Jack, and she has raised him in the room.

Room has been directed by Lenny Abrahamson and is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name. Donoghue, who also did the screenplay, gives this grim material a blackly comic twist by having Joy raise Jack to believe that there’s no outside world, only Room and TV Land. But there’s only so long that she can continue with this fabrication, and soon after the film gets underway, Joy starts devising a plan to get them out of prison.

The break, when it comes, is the most exhilarating sequence in the film. To see Jack’s eyes shoot open and try to take in the outdoors, all at once, for the first time, is a weirdly magical moment. To top this would have been near impossible, and Abrahamson doesn’t try to. The rest of the nearly 2-hour film is Jack and Joy adjusting to life outside Room, and though it’s sensitively done, it feels like any other well-directed recovery drama—depressed parent, anxious grandparents, precocious child. Yet, even then there are beautiful moments, such as when Jack is introduced to a pet dog for the first time, or agrees to have his long hair cut in the hope that it’ll cheer up his mother.

Abrahamson and Donoghue have adapted the source material faithfully; you’re in the best position to enjoy Room if you haven’t read the novel or seen the over-explicit trailer. It would have been interesting to see what a more visually inventive approach might have achieved—Abrahamson seems a touch cautious in this respect. But it’s difficult to imagine better performances than the ones Larson and nine-year-old Tremblay give. With the exception of the escape, I doubt specific scenes from Room will be stuck in my mind after a few years. But I’m confident I’ll remember Larson’s desperation and Tremblay’s terrified, awestruck expression when he sees the real world.

This review appeared in Mint.

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