Room, which Emma Donoghue adapted for the screen from her novel of the same name, is a story perhaps inspired by horrific news stories about the finding of women, kidnapped by men and presumed dead, who are discovered after living for years in captivity, often in otherwise unremarkable neighborhoods and houses. Stories of women in peril are nothing new to the silver screen, but here, Donoghue creates a detailed portrait of the woman involved, going beyond the shocking and the sensational to explore the humanity and resilience at its core. The resultant film, released in 2015 and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, tells the story of a mother in peril in a powerful and deeply moving new way. As opposed to other woman-in-captivity narratives from film history, such as Silence of the Lambs whose focus is placed on the journey of the detective who comes to the woman’s rescue. Room, on the other hand, takes the victims’ point-of-view, giving us insight into her psychological response to such traumatic events.
As Joy “Ma” Newsom, a woman kidnapped and confined to a storage shed at the age of 17, Brie Larson’s embodiment drew well-deserved critical acclaim when the film was released, including a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actress. Larson as Newsome is a fierce mama bear, loving and protecting the son born to her by her captor. Through her conversations with her son, we learn of Joy’s cunning intellect and will to survive; she has attempted escape, developed routines of hygiene and exercise, and created an imaginative origin story to help her young son make sense of the world in which he lives. Larson’s less-celebrated co-star, Jacob Tremblay as Joy’s son Jack, also commands a complex performance well beyond his seven years of age (his age during filming). For my money, Tremblay joins Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane on a growing list of young actors recently overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
As the film’s narrator Jack begins the film by introducing viewers to the world of “Room” by wishing its occupants (“sink,” “plant,” “skylight,” “bed,” and of course, “Ma”) a cheery “Good morning!” We are quickly familiarized with Jack and Joy through the tedium of their daily routine–brushing their teeth, watching Dora the Explorer, doing some yoga, et cetera. The film actually opens on Jack’s fifth birthday, and the two celebrate by baking a small cake to share. Despite the tenderness of these moments and the sweet mother-son relationship we immediately recognize, the opening sequence establishes a foreboding and sinister undertone, as we cannot dismiss the extremity of the characters’ situation – they rely on a meager ration of supplies, with no birthday candles to put on their cake; their space is lit by a sole skylight and a bedside lamp; we witness late-age breastfeeding and shared baths. Clearly, production designer Ethan Tobman underlines the screenplay’s suggestion to the viewer that the two are subsisting in conditions too close for comfort.
This claustrophobic narrative and visual motif is further emphasized through the camerawork in the film. Cinematographer Danny Cohen privileges Jack’s perspective and conveys the close quarters of his surroundings, sticking to low angles, close-ups and point-of-view shots. Nowhere is this more evident to viewers than in our first encounter with Joy and Jack’s much-feared nighttime visitor, “Old Nick.” The camerawork places us inside the room’s dark wardrobe alongside Jack, where he lies down and tries to sleep. He is roused to the sounds of a keypad being punched and an electronic door lock releasing – sounds strange and unsettling to viewers, but probably familiar to Jack. We see from Jack’s perspective through the slats of the wardrobe that a man is seated at “table,” but his face is out of view. The viewer, like Jack, is curious but leery. “Old Nick” presumably spots the birthday cake, because he half-heartedly mentions to Joy that, had he known, he could have brought Jack a gift. Joy quickly draws Old Nick’s attention away from Jack and the wardrobe, and the momentary silence is broken by the unmistakable sound of bedsprings – a sound sickening to us, leaving one to wonder how much young Jack has surmised from his nightly eavesdropping. Presumably the sound is innocuous enough for Jack to fall back asleep, and later we see Joy move the sleeping Jack to her empty bed once Old Nick has disappeared. This tense scene conveys so much to the viewer about the conditions in “Room” – Old Nick’s strange role as rapist and captor, but also father and provider, the way Joy must barter with her own body, seemingly nightly, to protect her son from her rapist, and Joy’s attempt to create a safe space with the wardrobe’s room-within-a-room. We feel Jack’s curiosity, as well as Joy’s simultaneous terror, frustration and resignation. In a few shots and lines of dialogue, the scene begs the question central to the film: How can one make sense of the senseless? How could a mother explain such a horrific living arrangement to her young son? One begins to see how the strange mythology and language of “Room” takes its shape.
As a film, Room goes above and beyond its incredible source novel by transporting, and, in this case, confining its audience into its narrative world. In its opening scenes, and throughout its dramatic trajectory, the film is unique in its ability to show us how a child might make sense of the horrifically senseless. Rather than becoming the detective story, revenge narrative, or horror film the subject matter might suggest, Room is a story about childhood resilience and a mother’s love, grounded in two fearless performances and aided by a team of filmmakers that together created perhaps the most memorable cinematic work of 2015.