Having been overlooked as a nominee for her role in Short Term 12 in one of the most puzzling Academy Award oversights of recent times, Brie Larson delivers another stunning performance in this latest effort from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. Having delivered the divisive but utterly wonderful Frank in 2014, Abrahamson’s next production was always going to garner plenty of attention and with Room he has delivered another unique, powerful and highly accomplished piece of cinematic art. The narrative premise of Room – a young woman snatched off the street, kept hostage and subjected to all manner of degradations – has been told a thousand times before. However, whereas such a story almost always unfolds from the perspective of the kidnapper and/or those involved in efforts to locate the victim – Abrahamson takes a different tack here in that we learn very little about the how the kidnap was orchestrated, the culprit or the impact her disappearance had on family and friends; the entire story is told from the perspective of Joy Newsome (Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay).
The first half of the film chronicles their day-to-day existence ensconced in a fortified windowless shed in a suburban backyard. The result of one of the innumerable rapes that Joy continues to endure at the hands of her captor, Jack has little understanding of what exists in the world beyond their prison. The day-to-day routine within this tiny cell is fascinating as Joy manipulates the space and the meagre possessions they have to make each day meaningful. The subtleties in Larson’s portrayal here are something special as we feel the angst and heartache of her predicament amidst her never-ending efforts to keep Jack stimulated, both physically and psychologically. Like any child his age, he has a boundless energy that pushes Joy to the brink on more than one occasion. It is a fascinating relationship in the most unimaginable of circumstances. The only other person with whom Joy has any contact is Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) the man responsible for all that she has endured and whose visits bring a diminishing supply of food and other essentials.
Once Joy and Jack find themselves free from their confinement, their release brings a whole new set of problems, not the least of which is Jack’s psychological and physiological incompatibility with a world he never knew existed. New characters enter the fray at this point, namely Joy’s parents Nancy (Joan Allen) and Robert (William H Macy) and Nancy’s new husband Leo (Tom McCamus). In fact, it is Robert’s reaction to Jack and his sudden and unexplained disappearance from the story that is perhaps the film’s only sour note. Abrahamson spends scant time on the efforts to locate and arrest Old Nick, preferring instead to chronicle the contrasting experiences of our two protagonists in their efforts to adapt to life on the outside. As Jack slowly learns to engage with the world around him, Joy struggles to find her feet and descends into a maelstrom of self-loathing and despair. Whilst Tremblay is somewhat shrill in the scenes within the titular room and his voice-over is grating, he really shines in the quieter moments that follow his escape as he comes to terms with his new existence; experiencing so much for the first time.
The work of cinematographer Danny Cohen in capturing the action within the room is remarkable. You are always conscious of the confines of the space, yet the judicious use of camera placement and angles brings a new perspective to the room with each sequence. Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own book that, presumably, draws from several real-life crimes, Room is an emotionally wrenching drama that captures the intense complexity of the bond between mother and child in the most extraordinary of circumstances. However, as Jack becomes less reliant on his mother, develops relationships with others and adjusts to the new-found freedoms of life in the world, Joy struggles to find her purpose. Jack had been her sole focus for so long that she feels her very reason for existing has been taken from her. It is unusual for a film to linger on the longer-term repercussions for those freed from such an ordeal because these movies generally end at the point where their release is secured and everybody lives happily ever after. As such, this is a powerful portrayal of post-traumatic stress courtesy of Abrahamson’s compassionate yet candid approach to the material and an impeccable performance of raw honesty from Larson.