There is a scene in Room where five-year-old Jack spots a mouse making its way across the grimy floor. Gently as he can, he puts down some food and kneels slowly so that he is eye-to-eye with the creature. The celestial awe that spreads across Jack’s features fills the screen in full; he’s never seen a mouse in real life before. We get the profound sense that it’s one of the most absorbing things he’s ever witnessed, another real living thing in his universe. Then his mother heaves a thick magazine at the vermin, expelling its presence with a single pop.
Room–based on the 2010 best-selling novel by Emma Donaghue–tells the story of Ma (Joy, played by Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who live in a 10-by-10 garden shed, and are being held in captivity by a psychopath and serial rapist they call ‘Old Nick.’ While Joy was kidnapped in her Ohio suburb seven years earlier, Jack was born into captivity and knows nothing of the outside world. In order to keep him safe (and keep him sane), Joy creates a life for Jack in which only the things that exist, are the things in their tiny room. “Hello, Lamp, hello, Sink,” Jack sings every morning, greeting the silent objects with great significance. “Hello, Plant.” Together, the two of them develop a routine just as any suburban family would. Teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, morning exercises are completed. They string together “egg snakes” out of eggshells, read books, make grilled cheese, and lay beneath the sun, a rectangle ray that bursts out of the skylight above. Anything that Jack sees on TV–dogs, trees, even other people–exist only in “TV world.” Only the things in the room are real. It’s only when Joy realizes they might have a chance to escape that she begins to tell Jack the truth about their reality. “I want a different story!” he yells with terrified fierceness, desperate to deny the truth that sends his world toppling. “This is the one you get,” Ma replies.
In a world without movie trailers, those of us who are unfamiliar with the book’s material would not know how Ma and Jack escape, or even if they do. Even so, the pivotal escape scene is something of a wonder to behold, a nearly religious harmony of camerawork, direction, and acting, and definitely one of the tensest moments in any film of 2015. While the first half of the film was all about tight framing, steely green and grey tones, and a study of eyes, the second half of the movie is where it opens up and bares its soul, as Ma and Jack try to assimilate back into a world that is now foreign to them.
In interviews, author Emma Donaghue (who also penned the screenplay) explained her desire to write a novel that took the interest away from the captor. Rather than analyzing incomprehensible cruelty, she wanted to produce a work that focused on captors, how they choose to survive and to move on. Visually, the film’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, does a compelling job of it. In the first few scenes after their escape, even the audience feels like they need to squint at the screen, as the now copious amount of light suddenly feels unbearable. To Jack, and to us, everything from a ringing telephone to a plate of pancakes with syrup feels completely alien. Still, because he is so young and malleable, we get to watch Jack, in his quiet and utterly sensational way, open up to the world; pet his first dog, make his first friend, and tell his grandmother that he loves her. Ma’s journey, unfortunately, is not as smooth.
While lagging in pacing at times, and weighed down by an overwrought score (why don’t directors ever trust their work enough to know that an audience is feeling what they’re supposed to feel without being directed by overblown orchestrations?) the film is carried by the strength of its actors. It’s gratifying to be in the presence of history-making performances, even from the comfort of a movie theatre seat. There can never be enough good things to say about Brie Larson, who brings this layered, paradoxical role to life with her usual ferocity and grace. Jacob Tremblay, at only eight years old, is otherworldly as Jack. How can someone so young display such a powerful range of complexities, often times with no words at all? Though the material presented in Room is challenging to watch at times, it’s a delicately handled drama that comes from a supremely talented team, and one whose scenes you’ll keep revisiting in the quiet moments of your day.