Room (2015)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/23/15 10:04:14

"The Prisoners"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

That "Room," the adaptation of Emma Donoghue's acclaimed novel, is an excellent film that contains a couple of the year's very best performances cannot be denied. However, the degree to which you admire it--"like" seems like an inappropriate terms in conjunction with material this wrenching--may depend to a large degree on your familiarity with the source material. If you haven't read the book and are coming to it with fresh eyes, my guess is that you will actually get more out of it than those who have as they may find themselves, as I did, slightly put off by the admittedly understandable compromises that had to be made in order to transfer it from the page to the screen. That said, if you have not read the book and have little practical knowledge of the narrative, you should consider this entire review to be a spoiler and bow out for the time being.

The film tells the story of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a cheerful little boy who lives with his Ma (Brie Larson). During the opening scenes, we see them doing all the things that a normal parent and child might do together--eating breakfast, washing up, doing exercises and such. Everything seems okay at first but as things go on, we begin to notice a few oddities. Their domicile isn't right, for starters--it is very tiny and contains no windows other than a skylight--and even stranger, they never seem to go outside. Later in the evening, Ma hides Jack in a closet just before the arrival of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who arrives with groceries and small talk and does something with Ma involving strange noises before leaving through the big electric door to which only he knows the code. Gradually, we begin to grasp what is really going on and learn that Ma was kidnapped by Old Nick years earlier, locked away in a small shed in his back yard and subjected to daily rapes that eventually resulted in Jack. In order to ensure that her son can have as fulfilling of a life as possible under the circumstances, she has essentially recreated the entire world within the confines of that shed in which some practical things contained within are considered to be real while those that cannot, such as dogs, are deemed to be imaginary.

This has worked for a while to help Ma endure the unendurable but it obviously cannot last and the construct is already beginning to fall apart. Having just turned 5, the naturally curious Jack is beginning to ask questions that cannot easily be answered. It is also revealed that Old Jack has been out of work for a few months and may not be able to maintain his horrible secret for much longer. Unfortunately, when Ma tries to finally explain the reality of their situation to Jack, she finds that her attempts to shelter him have worked too well--how can you explain to your child that you were kidnapped by someone who lured you in under the pretense of looking for a lost dog when he is under the impression that dogs themselves only exist on television? Before long, things get to a crisis point and a desperate Ma conceives of a plan to help Jack escape and not only does it work, he is miraculously able to lead the police that find him back to the shed and a reunion with his mother.

At this point, you may think that I have given away the entire story but instead of using the escape and reunion as the cathartic finale, it goes on to examine how both Ma and Jack cope with their newfound freedom. For Ma, it means reuniting with her own mother and father (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), both of whom had their own lives shattered (not to mention their marriage) when she disappeared and was presumed dead. It also means trying to return to the life that had been cruelly taken away from her while caring for a child that she loves ferociously but who also stands of a constant reminder of all that she has gone through. For Jack, the transition is even more unsettling in many ways--not only does he struggle to come to terms with seemingly ordinary things that he has only known in the abstract, he cannot comprehend why Ma, who could be kind and loving in the most dire of circumstances, now seems sad and distanced all the time.

What gave "Room" an extra emotional kick on the page and helped to earn it a lot of attention when it was published in 2010 was the method that Donoghue employed to tell the story. She presented the entire story solely through Jack's eyes and wrote it as an internal monologue in his voice--a risky gambit because if it didn't work, such an approach could have reduced the entire enterprise to a simple literary gimmick. As it turns out, it was a brilliantly conceived and executed idea that presented readers with a viewpoint as limited as the one shared by Jack himself and while it might have been a bit confusing and disconcerting in the first few pages, it helped to simultaneously convey the innocence of Jack and the horror of his situation. The problem is that a conceit that can work on the page, it does not exactly lend itself to a film adaptation very easily. It could be shot with the camera exclusively representing Jack's personal perspective throughout--sort of like what was done in the weird noir classic "The Lady in the Lake"--but that probably would have gotten fairly tiresome after a while.

In reconceptualizing "Room" for the screen, Donoghue, who did the screenplay, and director Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous film was the oddball musical drama "Frank") have elected to shift the perspective from the first person to the third and have viewers observe both Ma and Jack throughout from a certain remove. It may seem like a slight difference but it is a crucial one and one that does not quite pack the same punch as the story did when we were forced to look at it exclusively through Jack's eyes. To be fair, Donoghue and Abrahamson have gone to extraordinary lengths to make this unavoidable compromise work and for the most part, they do succeed, especially in the early scenes where the tight framing and unusual lighting schemes still manage to convey a certain amount of mystery as to what is going on for those who are coming into the story cold. And yet, the sense of isolation that gave the book so much power is now missing to a certain degree and as a result, it just doesn't quite have the impact that it had on the page.

And yet, while "Room" may be slightly flawed in its transition from the page to the screen, it more than makes up for it with the incredible performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack. Larson is the amazing young actress that you no doubt saw in such hits as "21 Jump Street" and "Trainwreck" and which you should have seen in the indie drama "Short Term 12," where her turn as a dedicated case worker in a residential facility for troubled teens was one of the best performances of 2013. Ma is an incredibly challenging role that requires an actress to pretty much run the emotional gamut in order to convincingly portray someone who will do anything to protect her child, even after the obvious danger is over and done with, and she hits every note with such grace and precision that she does the same thing for the audience that she does for Jack by making sure that things never bog down into total despair. As her son, newcomer Tremblay is a natural performer who more than holds his own with his more experienced co-stars and who creates with Larson one of the more unforgettable mother-child bonds in recent screen memory.

Because of my issues regarding the inevitable compromises regarding the adaptation process, I cannot quite get as fully behind "Room" as some of my colleagues have and if you have read the book, there is an excellent chance that you may share some of them as well. And yet, this is still a better-than-average attempt to film a book that some might have considered to be unfilmable that is undeniably smart, well-crafted and moving and contains a number of the year's best performances--Larson is clearly a front-runner for every acting prize in sight and Tremblay is certainly worthy of consideration as well. "Room" may not necessarily be an entertaining film in the classical sense of the word--it probably is not the kind of thing that one might want to go see on a relaxing Saturday night--but it is a deeply powerful one that deserves to be seen. If you do go to see it, however, make sure to block out some time afterwards so that you can call your own mother--you will need it.

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