“Room” Review (****½)

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Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson shine in “Room.”

“Room” opens with Ma (played by Brie Larson, “Short Term 12,”) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in the midst of their morning routine. The shots are close and color-muted. The frame is both sharp and unfocused, creating this disorienting, claustrophobic sensation within the viewer. From the very beginning we know that something is wrong, a feeling that I attribute entirely to Stephen Rennick’s score and Danny Cohen’s cinematography. Ma and Jack stretch; Jack runs back and forth; he takes his vitamins; they eat breakfast. We see bits of the room: a small bed, a bathtub, a toilet, a wardrobe.

This day, however, is particularly special because it’s Jack’s fifth birthday. Ma bakes him a cake (which is a very big deal) and Jack throws a tantrum because there aren’t any birthday candles like in TV. This is where Jack first mentions Old Nick, the shadowy figure who brings them food and vitamins and enters through Door. Jack implores why Old Nick can’t just bring the candles? And it’s here we discover the truth behind the film: that Jack and Ma are captives, survivors of the worst kind of circumstances. It doesn’t take long for the film to orient the viewer to their situation. It’s revealed quickly and without remorse, confronting the viewer head on with their dire and unlikely survival. They’re trapped. Though, to Jack, this is just life; he knows nothing different, a concept which is particularly draining on Ma. It is on on Jack’s birthday, too, that Ma has her breaking point. She is unwilling to live like this any longer.

Jacob Tremblay plays Jack in “Room.”

So she tells Jack the truth. Ma forfeits the honey-colored idea that Jack ‘zoomed down form Heaven,’ for a darker, more honest picture of how he arrived—a lovely consequence of a horrific situation. And in one of the film’s most moving moments, Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about the world (or more accurately, World). She tells him that life exists outside of Room, that outside of Room there are more rooms and more people and trees. Ma tells Jack about the night she met the looming, fearful man they call Old Nick. She tells Jack how Old Nick pretended to have a dog, a sick dog that needed help, and in perhaps the most earnest and rooted moment of the film, Jack reacts, asking her about the name of the dog. It’s a small moment that’s quickly pushed aside by bigger and louder driving points, but when that happened, I just thought ‘perfect.’ He’s five, he would care about the name of the dog; he doesn’t know how to process the bigger picture yet.

It’s on Jack’s birthday that Ma hatches an escape plan, the intricacies and details of which I won’t spoil here, but culminates with their freedom (I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler, I think that plot point is revealed within the trailer). In the first half of the film, we see Room as a character. Jack, in these dream-like voiceovers, orients us to his life. He tells us about each item in the room, revealing them as friends. Each item lacks its respective article, which is another wonderful way to syrup our empathic senses. These things—Wardrobe, Toilet, Door, Skylight—these are people to Jack; they’re world building and friendly and worthy of the capital letter that affronts their names. And the moment that Jack and Ma leave Room, there’s a division in the film. The tone shifts entirely, as does the point of view. Where before, in Room, Jack told us the story, and outside of Room, it’s a third-party kind of perspective. And it’s at this point, too, that we see the aftermath of a serious trauma. Ma, now called Joy by most, struggles adjusting to the outside world. A lesser story would have ended with the success of the escape, which is one of the reasons why “Room” is so great. There are huge gaps where Larson remains offscreen, and though Tremblay can hold his own, Larson is a noticeable absence.

Emma Donoghue’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is disciplined and polished and painstaking in its efforts to slow down the pace. With a five-year-old as her protagonist, Donoghue exhibits a complete mastery of the language and she’s patient in her delivery of the plot. It’s a book of bricks; each one is purposefully placed to support the one the follows. Everything about the novel is intentional. Donoghue magnifies every movement, every moment, every tired breath that’s taken and (barely) released. This, if anywhere, is where there’s the largest discrepancy between the two mediums. Where the book slows things down, the film hurries to reveal the plot, and you lose the power of suspense and thrill and fear that the novel retains.

Brie Larson plays Ma in “Room.”

“Room” is a film that wallops you with the power of its performances. Brie Larson is exceptional as Ma, truly she is. Her acting is subtle and fearless and works perfectly as this film’s emotional touchstone. Here’s the thing, though; I expected her to be great. If I was sure of anything walking into “Room,” it was that Brie Larson was going to be breathtaking. What I didn’t expect, however, was the power of nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay. He’s spectacular, and that’s not something I expected at all. He and Larson were equally matched and perfectly paired. Their relationship is this vulnerable, guileless thing that so effortlessly propels the film forward. If Jack feeds us the story, then it’s Larson who makes the film digestible, because the plot and story alone are enough to curdle your blood and turn your stomach.

Donoghue’s novel is unnervingly good. I read the book in a single day. Lenny Abrahamson’s film expertly honors the integrity of the text, and it’s a gorgeous film in it’s own right. It’s overflowing with quiet, choice shots, with perfectly dressed sets, with heart pumping suspense, and with a story that stomps and treads methodically but also carelessly on the most tender parts of your heart. But Larson and Tremblay, they’re everything in this movie. You want to look away, the story dares you to close your eyes, but you can’t. They won’t let you; their performances will you not to blink. And when they’re both on screen and they share the frame, it’s magic. I loved this film for all kinds of reasons, but it’s not a film I’d want to want to watch repetitively. It’s too much, and too heavy, but it’s a film that needs to be seen. It’s really a gorgeous piece of work.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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