Room (M). Director: Lenny Abrahamson. Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus. 117 minutes
Room is an unconventional thriller, and as such this review should be considered as containing minor spoilers. The film is based on Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue's excellent 2010 novel Room; Donoghue also wrote the screenplay, which shares the structure and many of the same dramatic beats as its source. Both find deep wells of beauty and affirmation amid decidedly bleak circumstances.
The story centres on the experiences of Joy (played in the film by Larson), who for seven years has been held prisoner in the souped-up garden shed of a suburban maniac; and her five-year-old son, Jack. It explores the elaborate and imaginative methods Joy has employed to nurture and educate her son, while at the same time protecting him from the dark reality of their existence.
The novel is remarkable in its use of language to create the inner voice of Jack, who narrates it. This often involves charming deconstructions of idiomatic English. Jack is awed by Joy's description of their physical resemblance: 'You are the dead spit of me.' 'Why I'm your dead spit?' Later he observes a gob of her toothpaste and saliva in the basin; it doesn't look anything like him.
At the same time, the image of Jack as a product of his mother's 'dead spit' is a potent metaphor for the biological connection they share. Of course Jack also shares this connection, at least, with his biological father, Joy's captor and rapist, 'Old Nick'. Firm lines are drawn then between nature and nurture: Joy insists Jack is hers alone; Old Nick (Bridgers) spawned but didn't raise him, and thus is not his 'father'.
As director, Abrahamson brings a stylised realism to the film that mimics the novel's capacity to transmit the bleakness of Joy's situation via the wonder-full gaze of Jack. Danny Cohen's handheld cinematography captures Joy's sense of confinement and Jack's understanding (fostered by Joy) of the shed, which he calls simply Room, as a place bursting with possibilities for recreation, rest and learning.
And then — and here's where things get spoilerish — there is a breathtaking first-act climax; and when the second act commences, Jack and Joy are Outside. Here, Jack faces the prospect of coming to terms with a world that, days earlier, he did not even know existed. Joy, too, must adjust to a family life that has changed substantially in the course of seven years. She also starts to show likely signs of PTSD.
The second half of the novel functions as an extended and deeply affecting unravelling of the first half's slow-burning suspense. The film, on the other hand, really comes into its own in this second act, thanks largely to its incredibly powerful performances. Larson is utterly absorbing throughout the film and shares a natural motherly chemistry with Tremblay, who is equally compelling.
In act two they play off against top-shelf talent in Allen, as Joy's mother Nancy, desperate to reconnect with her back-from-the-dead daughter; and in Macy, as Nancy's ex-husband, Joy's father Robert, who cannot bring himself to look at, let alone interact with, Jack. The boy may have been Joy's lifeline, and is his grandson, but he is also the product of an experience Robert finds too repellent to contemplate.
Nancy and Robert, we learn, separated as a direct result of the trauma of Joy's disappearance — which is a heartbreaking truth for Joy to contend with, on top of everything else she has endured. Along with Joy and Jack's parallel journeys towards reassimilation into 'normal' existence, the film examines the painful but necessary reformation of this badly damaged and forever changed family unit.
Along the way, Nancy's current husband, Leo (McCamus), emerges as a kind of understated hero, as the first person Outside to truly connect with Jack. While Joy is given cause to wonder whether she was selfish to keep Jack with her in captivity instead of sending him away, there is no doubt her love sustained him; now, Outside, it is Jack's capacity to love and be loved that can save them both.
Tim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.