I knew Room was going to be bad. I mean bad as an experience. Tough going. It is, after all, the story of a woman who has been held prisoner for years in a single small room with her young son, who is himself the product of repeated rapes by her captor. I mean, you know: Oh, gentlemen! Did you triumph over a mountain or a tightrope? This little girl survived a lot more than that, with no weapons and no training. Sure, this particular story is fictional, but it’s not fantasy. The novel by Emma Donoghue on which this film is based was inspired by a similar true story, and after the novel was published another similar true story revealed itself. (Makes you wonder how many other women we will never know about haven’t survived such horrors, or are still enduring them right now.) Heroic stories for men are all about battling natural disasters or tremendous odds after they have chosen to put themselves in harm’s way. Heroic stories for women are all about surviving what men do to them that they never volunteered for, about surviving men who do not believe that women are people entitled to decide for themselves what they want. (This isn’t how our heroic stories must be. Women in the real world freely do plenty of crazy risky things too. And men in the real world are subjected to plenty of nightmares that they did not sign up for. It’s just that we’re mostly just not interested in telling those sorts of stories. Those sorts of stories do not fit into acceptable ideas about the kinds of people that men and women are “supposed” to be.)
Anyway… I thought I had steeled myself for Room. I was wrong. I know I’ve said stuff like this before, but: The bar has been raised on calling movies “gut-wrenching,” “harrowing,” “brutal,” etc. I can’t use those words again lightly. I’m also pretty sure that I have used those words more lightly than I should have even after I figured I couldn’t. How quickly we forget some painful experiences. The ones that are merely “entertainment.” Frak me. No matter how much we might like to think that movies are an acceptable substitute for actually experiencing a thing, they cannot hope to have the same lasting impact as reality. Mostly, that’s a good thing. Because none of us would want to actually experience what Ma (Brie Larson: Trainwreck, The Gambler) and five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay: Extraterrestrial, The Smurfs 2) endure here. I felt physically ill watching Room. My stomach heaved. I wanted to retch. There are moments of such unbearable suspense here that I was hardly able to digest them and move on with the film. I wish I could have stopped it — numerous times — simply to give myself a chance to take a couple of deep breaths and step back from an emotional precipice of horror and tension.
The power of Room comes from how it is presented as just ordinary life. Because that’s what it is for Jack. (We know better, of course, and so we bring into it our awareness of how tiny and contained and constrained Jack’s life really is. You will sob uncontrollably with the unfairness and pathos of it. I did.) He has lived his entire life in what he thinks of as Room — at most maybe ten feet by ten feet, with no windows, though there is a skylight for a bit of sun yet no view at all, and an unbreachable lock on the door — because this is what Ma has taught him. Room is everything because it is everything, this tiny horrible disgusting place. But she tries to make it a not-horrible place… and she succeeds, at least as far as Jack is concerned. For a very long time in the film, director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) keeps the camera so very tight on Jack and Ma in their little space; “claustrophobic” is another word that suddenly has new meaning when describing a film. We don’t get an overview of Room, because it is as wide as the world in Jack’s mind. This corner with the toilet, and that corner with the wardrobe where Jack hides when “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers: The Woman, Sweet Home Alabama) comes to visit — where Jack pretends to sleep but actually counts the rattles of the bed outside — are part of the vast landscape of his existence. The horror and the piteousness of Room is in how Ma does her best to give her son as normal a life as possible under the most awful of circumstances, playing games and telling stories and trying to protect him from the fact that this is not how life is supposed to be.
And then there is an additional dismay that comes later when Ma tries to reeducate Jack out of necessity, and the fact that children believe what we tell them becomes a new hurdle for Ma to surmount.
Larson is absolutely extraordinary here; her struggle for Ma to retain her humanity and her hope for Jack creates an emotional space that is, as with the physical and two-person cultural space, so much bigger than it appears. And it’s almost impossible to believe that Tremblay is merely acting, his Jack is so plausibly socially stunted. They make us accept the terrible authenticity of this.
Has there ever been a movie this achingly poignant? I’m not even sure poignant is the right word for what Room is. It’s too small a word: it’s a word like Room itself, a tiny pretend approximation of reality that only hints at a yawning immensity. Room puts us so much in Jack’s little head — he is smart yet so narrow — that the conflict between what we really know about the world and what Jack is so confident in “knowing” about the world become so incompatible that Room creates a kind of cinematic cognitive dissonance. We become like Jack, unsure of anything, struggling to find our footing. I’m not sure that any movie — not one set in a distant science fiction world or in a bizarre fantasy realm — has ever made me blink and blink again at the world outside the cinema the way that Room has.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival