Some films are a knife that cuts an indelible wound in your heart; they change you so that you can marvel at the world in all its depravity, and beauty. In the Oscar-nominated, Room, the viewer is taken on such a journey of transubstantiation.
The story is seen primarily through the eyes of five-year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and it often dips into his thoughts. Jack lives with his mother, only known as “Ma” (Brie Larson), in a 10 by 10 square foot room. A small skylight is the only thing breaking the dreary, grey, cold space. Jack was born here. “Room” is his entire world, hence the lack of an article – it just “is”. Ma does her utmost to give Jack a happy childhood. She gets him to exercise (running from wall to wall in a kind of game); she makes him toys from paper and cardboard; she bakes him a cake for his fifth birthday, albeit it without candles.
Their only contact with the world outside the code-protected steel door is the regular visits by “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), their captor, whose face is never quite seen full on. He brings his captives food and other supplies. Ma has been living in Room for seven years, after being abducted by Nick at the age of 17. Old Nick’s regular visits are made all the more horrific by what takes place in near darkness; Jack hiding in a cupboard, observing near imperceptible movements and sounds.
There are no friends save the inanimate everyday objects Jacob greets as “Toilet”, “Sink”, “Chair”. He has access to television, but both the cartoons and live action programmes are a fantasy. To him, there is nothing real outside Room, and Ma has done nothing to change this perception, in an attempt to protect Jack. There is no concept of “outside”, of other people, of weather, or animals beyond the two dimensional screen. Despite this, Jack has a wondrous imagination and a strangely perceptive view of the things he does know, naïve as world may be.
The mother-child bond between Ma and Jack is so strong it has survived the most deprave and dehumanising kinds of abuse. But when Ma finally reaches breaking point, both she and Jack will have to do confront that which is most frightening to them: a world that is alien and surreal.
Room is a film full of suspense. There is a pervasive sense of apprehension, of holding your breath. The tension, which reaches its apogee midway through, mirrors the experience of long-term kidnap victims, and their attempts to try and assimilate back into their previous lives; in trying to be the people they were before. Director Lenny Abrahamson navigates this contrast between two disparate worlds – the grey, claustrophobic and make-believe one with the world that is light, confusing and ‘real’ – while highlighting their similarities, like loss of innocence.
The film is almost indescribable – it moved me to tears and yet it filled me with hope. Jack demonstrates children’s resilience and bravery, their innate ability to look at the world with wide-eyed wonder. And so, the audience begins to see the world anew, as through Jack’s eyes. “I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!”
Brie Larson is touted as the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar and though there is tough competition from Cate Blanchet’s Carol, Larson’s portrayal of Ma is one that is confrontational in its contrast of a mother’s gentle love for a child, and a young woman’s fight against ‘drowning’, first, in Room, and then, in the world. But really, it is Jacob Tremblay’s breakthrough performance as five-year old Jack that is the most astounding. Tremblay was seven when he was cast as Jack, and he is the most believable and arresting child actor since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. He is perhaps the biggest snub at the Oscars – it’s inconceivable how the Academy failed to nominate him in the Best Actor category. Academy Award nominees Joan Allen and William H. Macy play Ma’s parents, who both struggle to adapt to having their daughter back, who’s own emotions swing like a pendulum.
Room shatters your heart and puts it back together again. It is immensely powerful in bringing together cinematic and visual achievement with a story that is inimitably lasting.
It is a film that demands much of its audience. But, the reward is so enormous.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Brie Larson, Joan Allen, William H. Macy
Rating: 5 out of 5