A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

As emotionally affecting as Room is, and as brilliant as the performances of Oscar-winner Brie Larson and the equally worthy Jacob Tremblay are, the film left me dissatisfied. The premise is an intriguing one: Joy (Larson) was abducted at the age of 17 by a man (Sean Bridgers) who locked her in a shed, where she gave birth to Jack (Tremblay), who has just turned 5 when the film begins. Left alone together for all this time, with only periodic visits by the captor for sex and to bring supplies, mother and son have bonded uniquely. She has allowed Jack to believe that the shed, which they call "Room," is the only reality -- even the people they see on the television set the captor has supplied are just colorful shapes; they are "TV." The sky they can see through Room's one window, a skylight, is "outer space." The only other entity Jack knows about is "Old Nick," the captor, and Joy keeps the two of them separated as much as possible, shutting Jack in the closet when the man visits. We are in Plato's Cave here, and to follow up on that fable, which is beautifully established in the first part of the film, we need an awakening to reality that is both dramatically and thematically powerful. We get a good start on that when Joy, thinking that Jack is old enough for the truth, begins to break down the myth of Room and suggest to him that there is in fact a world outside. Jack responds with something like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief: He denies what she is telling him, grows angry and depressed, but finally accepts it as truth, which then allows Joy to enlist Jack in an attempt to escape. Unfortunately, after the excitingly suspenseful escape succeeds, the film begins to disintegrate into an often sketchy and unconvincing tale of recovery, and concludes with a tenuous "happy ending." Jack, a doctor tells Joy, is still "plastic," a word that Jack overhears and indignantly rejects: He's real, not plastic. But Joy sinks into a deep depression, partly aided by the fact that the world is going to test the bonds she has formed with Jack, and by the fact that things are not what they were before her abduction. Her parents, for example, have divorced and her mother (Joan Allen) has remarried. Her father (William H. Macy) has moved far away and can't bring himself to accept Jack as his grandson. She and Jack move in with her mother, Nancy, and stepfather, Leo (Tom McCamus), but the tensions of the household grow as they are besieged by reporters, and when an interviewer awakens feelings of guilt and responsibility she has repressed, Joy attempts suicide and is hospitalized. The problem with this part of the film is that there are no easy solutions to the crisis it has created. Moreover, we don't know enough about the characters it introduces to understand their behavior: Why, for example, is it so hard for Joy's father to accept Jack as his grandson? As brilliant an actress as Joan Allen is, she doesn't quite make the loving, gentle grandmother much more than a stereotype. How much hope can we hold out for Joy's full recovery and Jack's successful integration into a world he had previously never envisioned? I haven't read Emma Donoghue's novel, so it's possible that this part of the story is better developed and the characters are more plausible on the page than they are on the screen, although Donoghue also wrote the screenplay. There is, however, a scene at the end, in which Joy and Jack return to Room, now about to be demolished, that provides a kind of closure to the film that's satisfying artistically -- if not psychologically.