clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Room’: So much accomplished in a claustrophobic space

I’m not going to tell you “Room” is an easy film to digest.

I’m not going to promise you won’t want to walk out sometime during the first hour, especially if you’re claustrophobic or you’re a young mother.

I’m not going to tell you it’s the most entertaining movie of the year.

I will tell you it just might be the most impressive piece of filmmaking I’ve seen in 2015, and it features a great lead performance by a rising star, a memorable supporting role by a familiar veteran — and one of the most amazing acting jobs by a child I’ve ever seen.

When we talk about “Room” we’re going to have to talk about “Room,” and I’m going to keep this relatively short — not because “Room” doesn’t deserve a thousand words and many more, but because I want you to discover it for yourself. (That is, if you haven’t read the beautiful and haunting novel by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the screenplay and did a magnificent job.)

It’s little Jack’s birthday. He is 5! It is going to be a magical day. He can’t wait for his mother to wake up so the birthday festivities can begin.

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) tells us much of the story through his eyes. At first it sounds almost like a Dr. Seuss story, what with Jack’s poetic shorthand to describe the world in which he lives — a world consisting of one room, with a skylight in the ceiling, a few pieces of furniture, a smallish refrigerator, a sink, an ancient portable television, a battered toilet, a grimy bathtub and a narrow bed.

“Room,” as Jack calls it, is his world. Literally. He has never set foot outside this tiny cell, which is actually a garden shed in the backyard of a man called Old Nick, who seven years ago kidnapped Ma when she was a teenager, imprisoned her in the soundproof shed and has raped her repeatedly since then.

And that’s how Jack came to be born.

Ludicrous as that might sound, there have been true-life, horrific stories about young girls who are kept as prisoners in basements or sheds, tortured and raped by their captors — and in some cases even giving birth while in captivity. “Room” is fiction, but part of the reason it chills us to the bone is the knowledge such monsters exist in the real world.

Brie Larson plays Ma, and it is a raw, brave and unforgettable performance. Here is a young woman who was snatched from the streets at age 17, and is now 24 and a mother, and has to cope with an insanely overwhelming situation that starts with raising a child and includes everything from coping with a horrible toothache to negotiating with her captor for the simplest things like batteries or food, to not losing her sanity every morning when she wakes up and every night when she tells a bedtime story to her son and tries to find a few hours’ sleep for herself.

For five full years, Ma spins the longest fairy tale in human history to her son. She tells him their “Room” is pretty much the whole world, and everything they see on TV, from other people to animals to trees, is all made up. “Old Nick” (Sean Bridges), the shadowy figure who visits in the deep of night, of course knows of Jack’s existence, but it’s just fine by him that Jack always stays in the closet when Old Nick visits, bringing a few small items and then assaulting Ma once again.

In the second half of “Room,” we meet other characters, including William H. Macy as Ma’s father and Joan Allen as her mother. (Maybe it’s in flashbacks or in scenes taking place outside of the world of “Room.” You’ll see for yourself.) Suffice to say this part of the story is just as compelling and moving and intense as the first half.

Brie Larson is transcendent as Ma. She deserves a best actress nomination. The wonderful Joan Allen is as good as she’s ever been. Director Lenny Abrahamson and the tech artists on this film do an amazing job of creating a world within that room — making it seem oh so claustrophobic, but also letting us see it through Jack’s eyes as this big wide world.

And then there’s Jacob Tremblay as Jack. To play someone who is so smart and so curious, so devoted to his mother and so creative, and yet so isolated and sheltered and incapable of understanding reality, is an enormous challenge for an actor.

Maybe it worked to his advantage, and to ours, that he was so young he didn’t realize how difficult that would be, and how pure and lasting his performance truly was.

This is one of the best movies of the decade.

[s3r star=4/4]

A24 presents a film directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.