beauty in the bestial

a review of lenny abrahamson’s “room”

Warning: There are spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.

Five-year-old Jack and his Ma live in Room. Room is Jack’s entire known universe; outside of Room is Outer Space—or at least that’s what Jack thinks. In truth, Room is an 11-by-11 foot garden shed. Ma has been imprisoned there for the last seven years, since she was abducted as a 17-year-old by neighborhood psychopath and serial rapist Old Nick.

This is the premise of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” (and of its source material, Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name), and it is the stuff of horrifying, sensational true-crime stories. These stories surface in the news once every few years. They’re tales of such inconceivable depravity that they leave us incapable of any emotional response other than utter shock—so much so that any attempt to use these stories as fodder for a book or movie seems inherently gratuitous and exploitative, an exercise in emotional torture-porn, existing solely to indulge our morbid curiosities and sadomasochistic appetites for shock value.

And yet, despite the horror of its plot, “Room” is a tour de force that manages to be something not just miraculously beautiful, but also, thoughtful.

The genius of “Room” lies in its telling: It is narrated through the point of view of naïve young Jack, blissfully unaware of his own deprivation. The first half of the film orients us to Jack and Ma’s daily life in Room. It starts normally enough with bathing and eating breakfast and ends with the ghastly routine of Jack shutting himself in the wardrobe while Old Nick pays Ma a visit. It is a cramped space, a pitiful life—but for Jack, this little slice of space and life is an infinite universe, abounding in wonders. He converses with Sink, Plant, Bed, Wardrobe, and his other household-objects-turned-friends; gazes at the sunshine filtering through Skylight and wonders about “Outer Space;” and gets unduly excited when a mouse, a “real living thing,” shows up in Room. Jack’s wonderment is brought to life by a spellbinding Jacob Tremblay whose performance is so utterly organic, so lived, that it is hard to dissociate the actor from the character. Together, Jack, the character, and Tremblay, the electric, wide-eyed actor, infuse Room with such a pristine flame of hope and joy that it leaves viewers with the unsettling, paradoxical experience of finding beauty in what they know to be hideous.

What is remarkable in this initial act is Lenny Abrahamson’s near-perfect cinematic rendition of the novel’s first-person subjectivity, which allows us to see, breathe, and feel the poignant paradox of Room through Jack’s perspective. The camera moves, sometimes shakily, with Jack as he skips and prances about the space, imbuing the scenes set in Room with the comforting intimacy of a home-movie. Widescreen close-ups make the claustrophobia of the setting palpable, while the use of shallow focus obfuscates our sense of scale and depth, making Room feel stifling, yet limitless.

As viewers, our point of view in “Room” may be aligned with Jack, but it is Ma (Brie Larson in yet another stunning, award-worthy performance) who enacts the paradox of our spectatorship: She is aware of the horrors of her circumstances, and yet, both because of Jack and for his sake, finds life-sustaining beauty in her imprisonment. Brie Larson’s face becomes the stage where Ma’s internal battle is played out with the kind of nuance that, again, makes it impossible to separate actor from character. With her clenched jaw and numb, heavy-lidded eyes, she fights constantly to keep her despair at bay, doing everything she can to sustain the fantasy of normalcy that keeps Jack (and, therefore, her) going: baking him a birthday cake, stringing together eggshells to make playthings, reading him bedtime stories. Her hard-won composure cracks occasionally—sometimes in moments of raw tenderness, as she obliges Jack’s request for a song, and at other times in moments of desperate, protective fury, such as when Old Nick almost touches Jack.

However, when Old Nick loses his job and starts becoming even more dangerous—at one point, punishing them by cutting the heat in the shed for two days—Ma realizes it’s time to let the precarious fantasy die. She explains to Jack the existence of an outside world, and how they ended up in the room—not Room anymore, but a room. It is a paradigmatic upheaval for Jack, who exclaims, “I don’t like this story!” Ma responds, in a metanarrative moment: “This is the story you get.” Nevertheless, Jack slowly understands, and the two of them plot an escape. And then, two astonishing things happen.

First, in the 20 or so minutes that follow, Abrahamson demonstrates his directing chops in a sequence of escape attempts orchestrated with excruciating, intense tautness. It is one of the most visceral experiences of suspense I have had in a movie theater: the prospect of watching their escape attempts fail and repeat and drag on felt so intolerable that I contemplated walking out at one point. But then the second astonishing thing happens (and if you are unfamiliar with the plot of “Room” and averse to spoilers, you are advised to stop reading here): Just halfway into the movie, Jack and Ma escape.

As someone who walked into the theater knowing nothing about the movie other than its premise, I was very confused at this point: The film purportedly had a runtime of 118 minutes, but it felt like the film had already ended. However, after this mid-point, it is as if a new, entirely different film unfolds.

This half provides a contemplative look at how Jack and Ma adjust to ordinary family life. The axis of the story flips to focus on Ma, who becomes the ill-adjusted child, while Jack becomes caretaker. For Jack’s transition opens up his world: He must expand his limited worldview to include a flood of new people, concepts, and information. In a charming moment, awed by the dazzling amount of activity in the real world, he comments that he can no longer decide where to look, “world or TV.” For Ma, however, who comes home to divorced parents and hounding paparazzi, the transition opens up a well of post-traumatic depression, resentment, and regret. Unlike Jack, she doesn’t simply gain a new world when she escapes—she has also lost a huge chunk of life and time in the seven years she was imprisoned, and she now has to contend with that loss. Here again, Tremblay and Larson impressively capture their characters in all their unique complexities, and the cinematography draws us in, allowing us to vicariously experience the characters’ disorientation. Spacious wide shots and calm, unhurried camera movements contrast with the fragmented and urgent camerawork we got used to in the first half and make the world outside of Room feel oddly empty and static.

The mid-film climax is the other stroke of genius that allows “Room” to transcend not just the clichés of film narratives in general, but specifically of film narratives based on true-crime stories. True-crime stories are usually made into the most plot-driven of genre films—at worst, pulpy Lifetime movies, and at best, lurid, high-stakes thrillers. These are movies that tell stories of victimization but not of survival. They fixate excessively on events and gory details, rather than the people who experience these events, and rely on shock and suspense, that is, the desire to know happens next, to keep the viewer watching.

“Room” does something different. Once Jack and Ma escape, the film loses its urgency. However, it still holds you rapt—not because you are dying to know what happens next, but because you come to know and feel for these characters so intimately that you cannot let go. You simply want to be there as they unspool and reconstitute on-screen—as Jack has his first-ever spoonful of ice cream and meets a real dog for the first time, as Ma struggles to stay afloat and, once again, finds salvation in Jack.

Moreover, by staying with its protagonists as they move beyond their trauma, “Room” allows them to be defined by much more than just their ordeal. It is telling that unlike the usual discourse surrounding these events, which tends to dwell on the perpetrators and their psychology, “Room” chooses to focus almost exclusively on Jack and Ma. It affords Old Nick a few minutes tops of screen time, and once Jack and Ma escape, he recedes from the film almost entirely. This is a testament to this film’s firm refusal of cheap thrills in favor of a sustained and sensitive character study. By liberating its story from the shackles of plot and suspense, “Room” reels you in with something more complex and beautiful: empathy.