~ Spoilers here - see the movie first! ~
December 22, 2015
I’ve just returned from a private screening of Room, the staggering new film directed by Lenny Abrahamson starring an astonishing Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. To sob during a film is cathartic and lovely in its own beautiful way, but to be on the verge of tears for an entire movie and not be able to understand exactly why is harrowing and penetrating.
Room chronicles the last days of captivity after seven years for Ma and her son Jack (just turning 5 years old) within the confines of “Room”, a small shed with no windows and no escape. For the first forty minutes, the director makes the daring and effective choice to not break the captives’ POV. We are as confined as Ma and Jack are within that shed. Not a SINGLE outside, establishing shot, but rather small, intimate closups of the objects that matter to Jack - a portion of the counter, the light through the shutters of wardrobe, shells of an egg, the texture of the ceiling sound-proofing, Mom's hair. But even more daringly, the director focuses not on the devastation of their jail cell, but on the ebullient joy that these two share with each other and the only friends Jack has ever known since birth: Wardrobe, Chair One, Chair Two, Sink, and so forth. The tales Ma tells Jack to keep themselves emotionally and intellectually focused are pragmatic tactics of survival, as well as their tiny rituals like pushups, stretches, brushing teeth, singing, washing dishes, breast feeding, endless games, and the occasional special deviations of delight such as a small birthday cake, replicating a fulfilled life in the confines of what may not be larger than a 10 x 10 foot room. The biggest game of all, of course, is Ma's distortion of the truth to protect her son from the reality of their situation. To protect her son from discontent, she makes sure he neither knows nor believes in the existence of any world outside Room. This could have been merely a fascinating cerebral experiment had Room not paired this game with so much authentic, organic love and tenderness. Because danger and tragedy are so present, the need for mother and son to fill every inch of that room with love becomes a daily imperative. And this emotion is the one thing we feel is truly real in that shed.
These two actors take your breath and heart away from the first frame. They never break the rawness and reality of their situation. There is no perfect skin cover-up for Ma, as every Hollywood actress in dire circumstances seems able to procure. The tantrums have the exact same sudden flares and tone that characterize my nephews’ tantrums when they were five, followed by the infantile regret and crawling into Ma’s lap to apologize. The boy’s steady focus as he plays games while engaging his imagination and burgeoning intellectual awareness, followed suddenly by scattershot enthusiasm for the joy of physically thrashing about. Not enough can be said for the actress’ ability to sink her teeth into the layered sublimation of reality of their situation under maternal guidance and tolerance - all for the sake of survival.
Forty minutes is a long time for a film to spend exploring no more than the interior of a small shed, yet the telescoping effect expands its significance in your mind in so many profound directions. What really makes a person happy when stripped of access to most things? What would I have done if I were in her situation? What are the psychological effects of unrelenting imprisonment? Does anybody love me as profoundly as these two love each other? Do I love anybody that profoundly? How important is a child’s education really? Is she planning to escape, or contently resigned to imprisonment for the rest of their lives? What Room have I enclosed around my life for the sake of survival?
As with every well-crafted script, along comes an “inciting incident” that changes the movie's course. Jack breaks their routine when he leaves his hiding place in the wardrobe to lay eyes on their captor, Old Nick, during a periodic overnight stay with Ma. The film does not shy away from the explicitness implied in this visit, which up to now has merely been squeaks on a bed from the perspective of a hiding little boy. But this boy is growing up and curious, and he wants to know who the magic man is that brings them supplies and a brand new toy car for his birthday. The incident following forces Ma to realize she must, no matter what, find a way to get Jack out, leading Room to the necessary plot event known as “the point of no return.”
After seeing Room, I went to a diner on the corner of 55th Street and 6th Avenue with a buddy to discuss it. While he concluded that the point of no return was the moment in which Ma executes Jack’s heart-pounding, sweat-inducing escape, I believe the real point of no return was when Ma decides, right after the inciting incident, to educate Jack on the reality of their situation. To inform jack about what’s real in their world and what’s not real, and that there are two sides to every thing. There are two sides to that wall. There is absolutely no return after opening Jacks eyes and directing them beyond their small, odd little paradise, and I loved when Jack said, “I wish I was four again” after learning that Old Nick is not magical, and he is definitely not their friend. I believe Jack's escape to the real world is the continued development of Jack’s education as he steps out to the sky and trees and streets and meets a new person for the first time in his life.
This escape is the most excellent use of cinema in recent history. It completely takes advantage of the visual medium, wordlessly layering the unknown with the known, sequencing impetus shots and reaction shots. Over and over this film allows us to experience the ordinary through the lens of the extraordinary. To see a small boy wince at the brightness of the sun is ordinary. To know he's wincing because he's never in his life encountered so much light before is extraordinary. To see a small determined boy run on the grass is ordinary. To see a small determined boy run on the grass who has never run any distance before because he's been confined to a shed his entire life made my stomach leap into my throat for so many layered reasons.
For most films, the escape would be the climax of the film, followed by a quick wrap-up. For Room, the escape ushers in the second half of the film, and the real thematic targets get bullseyed. No, Room doesn’t devolve into a genre police investigation. Nor does it morph into a genre revenge picture. Instead, Room trades the imprisonment of a shed for the psychological imprisonment of their new suburban home where Ma grew up before being kidnapped. Jack’s tinfoil toys get traded for Legos and a slew of plastic toys. A small, barely palatable birthday cake gets traded for real ice cream. Their shed gets traded for a large, orderly suburban house with lots of windows. But Ma and Jack feel anything but comfortable and free here. Pressed on all sides with comfort in their new home, the purity of their connection to each other is tested and re-contextualized. Ma survived for seven years, driven for five of them by the need to protect and love her child. Without the desperate need for that drive, what does she survive for? Does she even want to? Jack looked to Ma for protection and love, but in this strange new world there are others who want to love him. Is too much accessibility to love and safety too overwhelming? He's curious about his new world, to be sure, but he's strongly accustomed to looking to one person for the source of all his happiness, entertainment, and comfort - and this person is profoundly lost, distraught, and resentful in their new environment.
The director is smart in his delicate exposure of Ma and Jack’s crumbling under the weight of their new “freedom.” In the most obvious symbolism, Jack deconstructs a Lego house and lets the pieces crumble to the carpet. In slightly less noticeable symbolism, their new suburban home is filled with long white railings that divide the multi-layered house into quadrants like bars of prison cells. Even when flooded with sunlight, Ma and Jack always seem crouched, receding into corners, and, now with all the luxuries at their disposal, feel infinitely more restricted and ill-at-ease than in their shed. Ma eventually sinks to her lowest point, which becomes the point in the movie when all seems lost. They cannot exist here in their freedom, nor can they ever replicate the familiar cocoon of their shed.
The masterstroke of the script, and therefore the novel from which Room was adapted, was the interview. Here Ma is asked by a television personality why she didn't give Jack up to the hospital much sooner so he could be raised in a proper home. Ma feels perplexed by this possibility, for in her brain it never was a possibility. My immediate reaction was to feel protective of Ma from this attack: "Miss Interviewer, you've no idea what she went through and how heroic Ma was for the last seven years! Don't you dare accuse her of misconduct!" But as I saw this question roll its wave over the next couple scenes, I began to cognitively revisit the first half of the movie and question the motives behind so much I thought was beautiful and pure in motive. Why did Ma wait until Jack was five to enact an escape? Why not when he was born? Was she afraid Old Nick would have killed Jack if she set him free? Or did Ma keep Jack close to her for her own need to own, love, and control something? For her own need to have a purpose to keep living? Is that why Ma killed that small mouse that found its way into Room - to deter Jack's attachment to anything apart from her? Is that why she kept breast feeding Jack until he was five? Is that why she lied about anything existing outside of their four walls? And as I questioned her motives, I realized the movie had made me identify and participate in Ma's onscreen struggle and anger and psychological self-flagellation, and I'd been complicit in admiring and beautifying their odd paradise in the shed quite possibly in the same way as Ma and Jack had. There seems infinitely less clarity in the world outside the shed, thus it seemed an inevitability that she'd attempt to end everything in the bathroom that night after the interview - unable to reconcile her actions versus her lack of actions, her victimization versus her heroism, and the way she feels versus the way she knows she ought to feel. And a lot more I've yet to understand after having viewed Room only once.
The magic key that truly turns the dark to light in Room is Ma and Jack’s reversal of who's caretaker and who's cared for. This is beautifully symbolized when Jack cuts his long hair to send to Ma in the hospital to give her his "strength." The more I thought about this notion, the more I think I understand its derivative without having read the book. As much as Jack may be deprived or sad or angry or weakened, his hair will keep on growing. His hair represents continuity and survival, and will always link him to his mother and her long hair. It's what they share, and their bond is their strength. Jack's act of generosity by cutting if off and offering it to Ma leads to one of the most moving moments in the film: when Jack comforts Ma on the bed at a moment she needs comforting most, crystallizing their new roles in each others' lives. It takes only two sentences and a world full of emotion in their eyes. It's cinema at its most poignant. This is the moment when their relationship evolves to a more mature, less desperate, and deeper level. Where loving each other becomes less of a crutch and more of a path toward healing and moving past the post-traumatic stress. For me, growth happens when you let go of the fear of the past's pain, and you forgive yourself for holding on to that fear for so long.
The last scene left me weeping right through the credits, yet it took a couple hours more to understand the trigger for my emotions. Ma and Jack revisit their prison shed. Room, now neglected and invaded by the police's collection of evidence, still exists. Room still awaits them. No dangerous Old Nick waits around the corner. No more death awaits either of them. And no more plot points need to be rolled out. And yet this scene is breathlessly and quietly climactic and suspenseful. Jack comments that with the door open Room feels smaller. Ma asks if he’d like her to close it. Essentially, she asks if Jack wants to return to Room. Certainly not literally, but figuratively. For us, the answer would be “Hell No!” But for Jack and Ma, there is a significant hesitation before concluding no. There was comfort in that shed. There was familiarity. There was naivety. There was the kind of pristine clarity that only happens when the choices are few – something that rarely happens in my life in New York City, and stopped happening for sure when I was 8 years old when a fire ravaged our neighborhood on the edge of a state park in California and forced me to re-evaluate what I cared for in my world. But, Ma and Jack can no longer really return to Room any more than Jack can remain four years old forever. And nor can I. Nor can we ever.
On one hand, I absolutely loved the truth of the hesitation these two had before they departed the shed - adult hand in child hand - for the last time. On the other hand, my heart ached excruciatingly because of how much I sympathized with that hesitation in the face of knowing how many years they endured such horrifying circumstances. There is no richer experience, whether in a novel, a movie, or in life, than to be asked to embrace two opposing emotions and notions at once, and feel more soulful and spiritual for trying. Goodbye Chair One. Goodbye Chair Two. Goodbye Sink. Goodbye Wardrobe. Goodbye Room.
It Eyed me
It Stalked me
It Absorbed my habits
And went away to hunt another.
But am I freed?
For now I need
~ by Rafe Haze
from the dramatic thriller “The Next”