Thursday, November 12, 2015

New movie review: Room

Brie Larson stars as Joy in director Lenny Abrahamson's daring, excellent Room.

It is hard for us to see as a victim sees. We have trouble putting ourselves in the mind of someone who has experienced great trauma, and it is as much a protective measure as it is a flaw in our ability to empathize. To understand pain is to feel it, and in a culture that spends a great deal of money, time, and effort looking for ways to numb itself, the last thing we are likely to seek out is pain.

Movies are especially bad at conveying meaningful suffering because cinema is a medium of action, and the word “victim” itself implies passivity. A victim is one to whom something happens, so films that otherwise would focus on victims instead search for other stories to tell. For instance, movies about kidnappings are almost always about the kidnapper, the cops, or the families and never about the experience of the one who has been kidnapped.

If Lenny Abrahamson’s stellar Room is any indication, Hollywood has been missing out. Emma Donoghue adapts her own novel to tell the harrowing story of a woman and her son held captive for seven years in a single room and the lengths to which she goes to protect him from the horror of their situation. The film is a penetrating investigation into despair, suffering, and ultimately hope.

Brie Larson is Joy, abducted at 17, and Jacob Tremblay is the 5-year-old Jack, who was born into this life. The first half of the film is essentially a two-hander between these two actors, and both deliver transcendent performances. Larson’s career to this point has been defined somewhat by small parts in good films and big parts and great performances in films of lesser quality. Here, she finally gets a showcase worthy of her talents, and she more than rises to the challenge.

Joy is a woman forced to grow up under the direst circumstances – imprisoned, subjected to repeated sexual assaults, and cut off entirely from the outside world. She is clearly strong, but something inside her has been broken by the experience. However, in her son and her desire to shield him from the realities of their life, she finds a reason to carry on. She creates a world inside the room for the two of them, and in this imaginary world, Jack finds stability, comfort, and something resembling happiness. These feelings, however, are as imaginary as the world Joy creates, and she knows it, so she resolves to break them out.

The film’s centerpiece is the escape sequence, and it is among the most thrilling and emotionally draining scenes you will see this year. It plays like a prison break, but the stakes are infinitely higher because we have grown to care so much about these characters through the first hour of the film. We desperately want them to succeed because the fundamental nature of their situation offends our sense of justice. They do not belong in this place. The room is an inherent wrong, and the world is a worse place for its existence.

Abrahamson, who directed last year’s excellent, though wildly different, Frank, expertly manipulates our sense of time throughout the escape. Though it may take up only five minutes or so in real time, the soundscape, camera angles, and editing extend the characters’ agony – and by extension, ours – into a white-knuckle experience that seems to last forever. Until the escape attempt, the audience has been stuck inside the room with Joy and Jack, so our first venture into the outside world is as disorienting as theirs.

Jacob Tremblay in Room.
Even inside the room, Abrahamson is able to find clever angles and camera moves that ensure the film is as visually interesting as it is emotionally hard-hitting. By choosing to shoot the majority of the action from Jack’s point of view, Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen offer the audience a perspective often imitated but rarely captured in cinema – the world through the eyes of a child.

Because Jack has been spared the worst of the emotional toll of the room, he is mostly free to view life as a wondrous range of new experiences, and Tremblay is startlingly good at conveying this. If Larson’s Joy represents the broken pieces of a shattered world, then Tremblay as Jack is what the world looks like when all the pieces come together again – the fun, the innocence, the fear, and the hope for a better future. He is all of this wrapped in one, and Tremblay communicates this at times with little more than a smile or a small gesture of openness. It is a glorious thing to watch.

From a storytelling standpoint, the filmmakers, in particular Abrahamson and Donoghue, make the right decision to approach the story from Jack’s point of view. A film told from Joy’s point of view would be almost too excruciating to watch. Room does not rub our noses in suffering or toss us headlong into a pit of despair, but it does not look away. Most of us will never know the traumas of Joy and Jack – though their story is quite real for untold millions the world over – but Room brings us painfully and terrifyingly close to the edge.

See it? Yes.

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