At its halfway point, Room arrives at the moment that you might have thought would be its big finale. After being held hostage for seven years, Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) execute a daring escape from their captor, a demented weirdo known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who has locked them away in a small shed and has forced her to have sex with him on a regular basis. To help normalize her son’s horrendous living conditions, Joy has long told Jack that their one-room prison is actually the whole world, convincing the boy that the stories they read and the TV shows he watches all exist in some other dimension. But at long last, and with a decent amount of nerve, they get out—if you haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed novel, I don’t want to reveal how—and it seems like a happy ending. The fact that it isn’t—at least not yet—is part of director Lenny Abrahamson’s larger point. Everybody enjoys reading about the satisfying resolution to a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s over for those involved.
Room is actually the second film this year to deal with the aftermath of abduction. (Stockholm, Pennsylvania, which debuted at Sundance and went straight to Lifetime, starred Saoirse Ronan as a young woman returned to her family after 17 years, preferring her former imprisonment to the loving parents she doesn’t remember.) Room’s insights aren’t particularly surprising, but they’re genuinely earned nonetheless. This is a movie that resists a lot of big emotional crescendos, as if the filmmakers wanted to be respectful to the characters and not force them to go through any more than they’ve already experienced. But it’s alert to the strangeness of their circumstances, chronicling how surviving an ordeal isn’t the same as getting past it. Along the way, Room is also one hell of a good movie about the miseries that moms silently endure for the good of their children.
Larson is the film’s focal point, and she gives a great performance, but it’s one that takes a moment to absorb, the emphasis more on what she’s withholding. When we first see her, she’s simply “Ma,” the name Jack gives her in “room,” the boy’s terminology for their shed space, and she’s working hard to make their lives seem like anyone else’s. We see the movie from his perspective—Jack narrates on occasion, too—but Abrahamson has faith in his audience that we’ll feel the movie from hers, that we’ll quickly grasp the horror of their living situation and the lengths to which Joy has gone in order to preserve her child’s innocence. Consequently, Larson has to internalize Joy’s anger and sadness, lest she shatter Jack’s illusion with the ugly, depressing truth.
Because we stick closer to Jack, Joy remains a distant, mysterious figure. That’s intentional. It was only during my second viewing of Room that I noticed that the film captured pretty accurately the feeling of what it’s like to be young and to see your parents as these tall, benevolent, unknowable, practically alien creatures. Although Joy is a very young mom—her son was conceived during one of the times Old Nick raped her—she’s meant to be a universal symbol of motherhood, especially the sacrifices and anguish that go into the job. It proves particularly ironic, then, that Joy isn’t the movie’s main character: Even in a film about motherhood, she’s a bit in the background, practically taken for granted while our concern goes to the fragile boy.
Abrahamson’s approach twists the knife a little deeper in Room’s second half, which traces Joy’s reentry into the real world and Jack’s introduction to it. Joy reunites with her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy), but their lives changed in the seven years since she was kidnapped, forcing their daughter to play catch-up. The friends she had in high school are never seen. Living in her childhood home with her mom and her new boyfriend (Tom McCamus), Joy is merely a prisoner in a bigger room, unable to understand why she still feels claustrophobic, trapped. And because we observe all of this from Jack’s POV, it’s almost as if it’s happening in a subplot, somewhere removed from the main action.
Why does Joy slowly implode once they’re freed from Old Nick? Room offers lots of clues without landing on any definitive answer. But the whys don’t matter: Larson makes sure we care more about the emotional aftereffects, and she’s heartbreaking as a woman who had to hold up under impossible circumstances for so long that, now that it’s over, she’s lost her bearings.
Tremblay is quite fine as the young boy, his big eyes silently taking everything in, and the movie is cunning in suggesting that Jack will have the tougher time of adjusting to the outside world. The cruel twist of Joy’s life is that she wasn’t given the choice to be a mother, she becomes one in complete solitude, and her ordeal is far more grueling than one could imagine. And still she proves to be a brave and loving parent, even after her escape and while being written into the background. It’s gets at the most poignant and tragic ideas in Room—that our society is so concerned about protecting our children that we often overlook those who have been tasked with protecting them.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.