Movie Review: “Room”

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She has been imprisoned for seven years, locked in a soundproof shed with only a skylight and a TV to connect her to the outside world.

Her son is turning five. He was the product of a rape by her captor/tormentor, and has only known the world of this 12 by 12 “Room.”

“Good morning, lamp. good morning sink,” Jack (Jacob Tremblay) coos. Kids can adapt to a universe limited to a toilet, tub, TV and toaster oven.

Upon turning five, Jack’s questions grow more pointed, about the time “before I came.” He is confused about “the real world” and “reality” in general. Ma (Brie Larson), with much of the life drained out of her pale face, tries to set him straight. She has to be gentle, because Jack is given to tossing tantrums at knowledge he doesn’t want to hear. He has never been out in the sun, never had a haircut, never played with another child, has no notion what is on the other side of that always-locked steel door. He’s curious, but scared to death at the possibilities.

“Room” is a wrenching account of a mother’s devotion to the one thing she’s been allowed to have — a little boy — and her guilt from raising him in this awful situation. “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) visits her each night, like clockwork, for sex and threats. She cannot protect Jack from him any more than she can protect herself.

Lenny Abrahamson’s film of Emma Donoghue’s novel is an overcast affair, a tale sodden with gloom and sadness. Jack is the only one who doesn’t realize this, and it is eating Ma alive.

The story is seen through Jack’s eyes. He narrates it and lets us see his whole world — mother, sparsely furnished room, and TV — through his innocent eyes.

“Old Nick” is “not our friend,” Ma has to remind him. They practice screaming when they know Old Nick isn’t around, but “the aliens can’t hear us.” “Out there” is nothing but empty space, he’s been taught. Dora the Explorer isn’t the only invented thing TV offers. “Squirrels and dogs aren’t real” either.

But then, in desperation, Ma hatches a plan and risks all –especially the one thing she has in this world, her son — in a chance to escape.

The aching thing about this movie is realizing there are dull, unspeakably cruel monsters in this world who would enslave a young woman and her child in just this manner.  Donoghue plainly was inspired by the Austrian Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive and fathered children with her, and the Ariel Castro case from Cleveland — women, kept imprisoned in dungeon-like conditions as sex slaves, having babies with a monster.

Larson was the sober-minded sister in last summer’s “Trainwreck,” and lets us see the exhaustion and hopelessness of Ma. Jack is the only reason she gets up each day and endures each night’s conjugal rape/visits.

Young Tremblay is a wide-eyed revelation as Jack, mercurial and smart, innocent but just beginning to acquire a little wisdom and courage. He does things that frighten him because he is his mother’s strength, now. He gets that.

The story takes a surprising turn midway through, a change in direction that deepens the experience for the viewer, making us culpable in at least part of the misery these two face. The film drags, ever so slightly, in its final acts.

But the miracle of this Irish-Canadian co-production is the tension Abrahamson (“Frank”) manages before that mid-movie climax, and the tension he recreates with a wholly new dynamic. That makes “Room” a movie that will have you checking your locks, looking in on the kids and yet hopeful thanks to the knowledge that children are “plastic” — adaptable, malleable, and able to upend their naive worldview and belief system if they hear it from a loving mother.

MPAA Rating:R for language

Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers
Credits: Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, script by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:58

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