Jack says “hello” to the room where he lives every morning: “Hello room.” He says hello every morning, in fact, to everything in his tiny world: “Hello sink,” “Hello TV,” “Hello rug.”
They are all he knows of life. They are all he has ever known in his five years on Earth. His mother – “Ma” – had him two years into her captivity by her kidnapper and repeated rapist whom she calls Old Nick.
She hides Jack in the closet when Old Nick visits. It is during those visits when Old Nick brings food and supplies. It is during those clockwork sexual assaults on Ma that Jack can see nothing but can hear the sound made by the bedsprings. He counts them: “49, 50, 51.”
As “Room” opens, it’s Jack’s fifth birthday. “Do you know what we are going to do together?” asks Ma. “We are going to bake a cake.” So she does.
And Jenny Abrahamson’s movie takes us on a narrative journey I have never seen or imagined before. Let me gladly admit that it was three full days before I was able to get “Room” out of my head – both the sublimated horror and the profound emotional effect.
Let me also admit for candor’s sake that I have a 5-year-old grandson, so I’m probably more sensitive to the horrors inflicted on a 5-year-old boy here than I might otherwise be.
It is the utter astonishment of “Room” that it is, in its first half, a horror story without horror. When we first see Jack, his uncut hair is so long, we don’t even know his gender. It takes some minutes to figure it out.
His mother has, incredibly, done everything she can to make everything in her violation and their constriction and imprisonment seem so normal that Jack, though confined to a tiny room his whole life, has grown up, to all intents and purposes, a happy child. He has been so loved and so ably protected by his mother that he has a weirdly well-adjusted identity of his own. (He calls his long hair his “strength.”)
When he sees the real world on TV, Ma is able to convince him it’s only “TV” and that their tiny world is what’s “real.”
It is the tragedy of everyone who has to write about “Room” that we have to indicate that after a scene of harrowing, skin-crawling suspense halfway into the film, we are shown the real world again.
And then the profound wallop of the movie settles in. In the audience, we’re asked to consider both worlds – freedom and horrifying abuse and captivity. And then we’re asked to imagine, if we can, the inner states of both Ma and Jack.
This is not just one of the year’s great films, it is a great film, period. It’s a horror film that isn’t really a horror film. It’s a coming-of-age film that is about how people live, not just how they get older.
It was written by Emma Donaghue from her original best-selling novel. She has said that it’s based on several cases (Jaycee Dugard, for instance), but the writing of it began after Donaghue heard about the Fritzl case, in which an Austrian man kept his daughter captive for 24 years, during which his repeated assaults on her resulted in eight children, seven of whom lived. (He is, in his 80s, in the criminally insane section of an Austrian prison.)
What may be the small miracle of “Room” are the performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack. Tremblay was 8 when he played the part, but it is one of the most amazing performances by a child I’ve ever seen – so much so that you realize after seeing the film you can’t possibly ascribe his brilliance to the boy alone but rather to Tremblay, Larson and director Lenny Abrahamson, all functioning in sublime consort.
Somehow these people together created a tale of mother love in the worst circumstances that is uniquely moving in a unique way.
The world of promotion has taught us to think of movie performances in terms of awards – Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG. In this one case, over most other films, you’d have to say that it would be absolutely true that any award to any one of them would belong to all of them. The heartbreaking relationship you’re watching was constructed by the three of them together.
Nor do this movie’s surprises stop in its second half. That fine actor William H. Macy is one of the film’s biggest names, which makes the way he’s used in the film completely unexpected. Joan Allen, too, is used perfectly.
In other words, everything about the direction of this film is uncommonly fine.
And when it’s over, we can’t help but contemplate things as huge and beyond our understanding as the purpose of life – the tidal power of mother love, the primal force of both freedom and maturation in children, the eternal paradox of innocence and happiness in the world we all know so well.
This is not just a film to be seen. It’s a film to be both thankful for and humbled by.
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridger, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Wendy Crewson
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: R for language and a very disturbing plot.
The Lowdown: A sexual captive of her kidnapper, a mother raises their 5-year-old son in a one-room shed that is all the boy knows.