How ‘Room’ Shakes Up the Kidnapping Drama

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The images that open Lenny Abrahamson’s Room are tight close-ups — too tight, and too short, upsettingly so. The objects in those frames aren’t sinister: a plant, a chair, a sink. But there’s something unnerving about them, even after Jack (Jacob Tremblay) wakes up and greets them all, individually, with a cheerful “Good morning!” He’s just turned five. His Ma (Brie Larson) wakes with him; they’re going to make a cake for his birthday. In the course of that activity, and all of the others they use to fill their day, they will not leave the small room that serves as their bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. They have little routines, and they try to entertain themselves, and to live a life. And when it’s time for little Jack to go to bed, Ma sings to him, her sweet and pure voice wrapping itself around the lyrics of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” a song which promises sunshine and birds and sleeping out every night. The scene ends before the song is over, but we get the picture.

This is a film that trusts its audience, and takes its time letting them in on the particulars of what these two are doing in this room. It becomes clearer when “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) shows up for his nightly visit, his arrival preceded by the beeping of a security code that opens the room’s only door. Abrahamson’s camera stays in the wardrobe where Jack sleeps — we hear, but do not see, what happens between him and Ma, presumably every night. Hearing might be worse.

The first half of Room does not leave that space; it traffics in sheer claustrophobia, and in the monotony of their days. We don’t get the break (or the exposition) that might be provided by leaving its walls — it’s just us and these two people. And through their dialogue, we begin to understand the world this mother has constructed for her son, the way she’s made him understand who they are, where they are, and why they cannot leave. When, in a moment of frustration, she punctures one of those fictions, it breaks him; these fantasies are what keep them sane. But reality must encroach eventually, and she makes a decision: she’s going to “un-lie,” to deconstruct and re-explain their life, for reasons initially unclear. Then it comes into focus: she has a plan to get them out of there. And it will put them both at risk.

By this point in the narrative, there are real stakes, and real concerns — because there’s the nagging background question, which any sensitive viewer must ask, of how stable Ma might be by now, seven years into this ordeal. (How stable would you be?) Sometimes, unlike in the movies, plans aren’t brilliant; sometimes they’re desperate, and sometimes they fail, because other people don’t follow your script. But she has a plan, and it’s worth trying, because they can’t live their lives like this anymore.

This is the point at which you might consider bookmarking this review and coming back after you’ve seen Room. I went into it cold, and would frankly recommend you do the same (this advice holds for nearly any movie, but that’s neither here nor there). Yet what happens at this halfway point is divulged clearly in the ads and trailers — and is worth talking about because so much of what makes Room great, of why it’s innovative and admirable, is a result of that break. So proceed with caution, etc.

The music, the cinematography, the cutting of this sequence is visceral, powerful, and overwhelming, as this five-year-old child summons up all of his courage, all of his power, and makes the escape. He finds the police, and a resourceful cop figures out what’s happened and acts. His mother is safe; they are reunited. (These two extraordinary actors will wreck you pretty much throughout Room, but the things Larson is doing in that reunion scene are, quite simply, astonishing.) And then… well, what then?

The aforementioned climax and resolution that comes midway through Room would come at the end of most movies — it provides top-level excitement and stunning catharsis. It gives us, simply put, a happy ending. And that’s why the second half of the picture, the “what then?” half, is so difficult and challenging. Happy endings are easier. They feel good. But that outcome isn’t as simple, or easy, or feel-good as a happy ending, and writer Emma Donoghue (adapting her novel) thinks through — and feels through — all the emotional and intellectual implications of what these two have been through, and what their lives would be like afterward.

“I want a different story!” Jack insists, early in the film, before their journey out of “room.” “No,” Ma replies, “this is the story you get!” And she’s right, right then, but they do get a different story, one of their own making. And the ending Room eventually lands on isn’t, on its surface, the kind of powerful conclusion it passes by earlier. But it packs a wallop of a different kind, as its protagonists find a simple yet bottomless truth, together.

Room is out Friday in limited release.