When I walked into the theater to see Room, I couldn’t help but notice three older women sitting together two rows behind me. Hearing them chat before the movie began, I learned that they did this all the time; that they were part of a movie-going club with a few of their friends. They were excited; had heard great things about Room, and especially Brie Larson’s Oscar-nominated leading performance. When the movie was over, I sat in my chair, devastated and in tears. I managed to get up, and I looked back at the three women. They were dabbing away at their eyes with kleenex. One of them looked over at me. “Oh, my,” she said. “That was so. . . ” And then she couldn’t finish her sentence. I knew how she felt.
Room is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel; she also wrote this spare but finely crafted screenplay. Directed by the Irish director Lennie Abrahamson. Larson plays a young woman who was kidnapped years earlier, and confined in a tiny room, in a shed, in the back yard of her abductor and rapist. She has been there for seven years, and has a five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who calls her Ma. Jack has never left this place. He calls it Room. As far as he knows, it’s the entire universe. He has also named their sparse possessions: Chair, Other Chair, Sink, Rug. The first half of the movie is entirely located there, in Room, with the two of them. At night, Ma puts Jack to bed in the closet, and shuts the door. She doesn’t want him to see her being violated by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the vicious monster who feeds them, provides for them, has incarcerated them, and who alone knows the combination to the door lock.
In a sense, then, it’s a movie about Ma and Jack, and their escape from horror. But they do manage to escape, due to Ma’s careful plotting and Jack’s courage. They escape Room physically. But they have to escape Room mentally, psychologically, perhaps even, in a real sense, metaphysically. Room dominates them, infects them, swamps their senses and warps their perceptions. And five-year-old Jack has the resilience of youth going for him. Which Ma, a teen when captured, can no longer rely on.
So that’s part of the film, a psycho-drama. Perhaps it could even be seen as a case study for PTSD. But to say that is almost ludicrously reductive for a film as rich as Room. Room has not just destroyed Ma’s life. It has infected the lives of her parents, Nancy (Joan Allen), and Robert (William H. Macy).
Macy’s only in two scenes, and given only a couple of minutes of screen time. I’ve always believed that Macy is one of the world’s great character actors, and this film does not misuse him. It’s hard for language to capture how devastating his performance is, and how crucial Robert is to the film’s themes. But I’ll try. It’s because Robert has allowed Room to destroy him. He doesn’t even know it, but we can see it clearly; he will never recover from what Room has done to him. To him, not just to his daughter and newly discovered grandson. Room, in this case, is a metaphor for confinement, for rape and abuse and violence and deprivation. She lived it. He’s lived it to, in his mind, in his imagination, and it has turned him into a grotesque parody of humanity. Robert can only go through the motions of polite dinner conversation; he’s become incapable of actual human interaction. Macy, with those haunted eyes, pulls it off.
Nancy’s stronger than he is, and more capable of connecting to ‘her Strong.’ (Jack has never had a haircut, and tells his grandmother that his hair is where his Strong is. The scene where she finally cuts his hair is among the most powerful in the movie.) The more we get to know Robert and Nancy, the more inevitable their divorce strikes us. But she’s remarried, to Leo (Tom McCamus), shaggy and instinctively kind. And for Leo, Jack is . . . a kid. A bright, courageous, wonderful kid. And it’s through Leo (and Leo’s dog, Seamus), that the film performs its final miracle.
We saw it prefigured earlier on. After Jack escapes, he has to explain to a policewoman (Amanda Brugel) where his Ma is. And of course, he has no frame of reference from which to do that, and is anyway completely overwhelmed by the size, by the sheer reality of, well, reality. Remember, he’s never been out, and isn’t even quite sure there is anything outside Room. (He can’t even tell them Ma’s real name). But with immense patience and kindness, the policewoman talks to him, builds him up, gains his trust. Gets the information. Rescues Ma. That was the first time I cried.
Because, ultimately, Room isn’t about Room at all. It’s about courage, it’s about kindness, it’s about recovery and forgiveness, and it’s about love. That’s why I was so in tears at the end. It’s a film about horror and violence and evil, but it’s also about redemption. Abrahamson and Donoghue pull off something miraculous with this piece; without ever, at any time descending to sentimentality or mawkishness, they construct a film that revels in what’s best in humankind.
Room is shattering. But as I left, I didn’t feel shattered. It’s devastating, without devastating us. And Brie Larson’s final moment, her final line, captures the ultimate human victory over Room.
We are not the sum total of our traumas. We’re more than just victims. We’re Jack. We’re Ma. We can do this. What a tremendous film achievement.