In addition to visualizing the characters’ sensorial experience of the worlds they abandon and discover, these contrasts also underline and challenge socially-constructed norms. In the closed confines of “Room”, which Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) refer to without an article as if it were a fellow family member, all the care and emotion invested in cooking, TV-watching, bathing, bedtime stories and other such daily mother-child activities become more apparent to us – so much so that the reality of their situation takes a good ten minutes to truly hit us. By the time Jack has tucked into bed just in time to watch Daddy come home and have an argument with Mum over the lack of birthday candles and presents before resuming his usual routine of raping her, the macabre caricature of heterosexual patriarchy is complete.
It would be tempting, based on the above description, to concentrate on Room as a feminist text, but doing so would run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. By transporting these behavioural patterns into a context of abduction and captivity, screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own 2010 novel) isn’t just criticizing enforced gender roles; she’s opening up new possibilities for us to re-examine the bonds we form with our surroundings.
Director Lenny Abrahamson makes this especially evident in the many scenes of the first half that concentrate on Jack and Joy’s dynamic. Keeping his subjects close with a long-focal shot/countershot system that reflects their respective points of view with every change of angle, he subtly brings out their reflections within each other even as they clash – most notably in a brief shared bath scene, in which the quick cuts unassumingly blend their identities together. Jack’s androgyny, heightened by his long hair and high-pitched voice, makes him look like his mother’s childhood self – and thus more representative of childhood as a whole. As a daily reminder of his mother’s precipitately lost innocence, Jack is an unwitting one-person imperative for her to symbolically redeem her parents and fix her abductor/rapist’s damage. As a fresh five year-old, he’s at a stage where many of his gender characteristics are more or less indistinguishable from a girl’s and, more importantly, where long-term memories begin to durably implant themselves in his mind.
Given the complex maze of truth and falsehood that Jack has to make sense of for most of the film, this is a very promising psychological set-up indeed, so it’s a shame that Abrahamson’s stylistic choices take so long to amount to little more than a modernized retelling of Plato’s Cave. Despite the astonishing chemistry between Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, the strength Joy draws from her son’s resourceful imagination and yearning for fantasy never quite translates to any truly revelatory visuals. Appropriate though they may seem, Jack’s innocent fairytale voiceover – strongly reminiscent of Hushpuppy’s narration from Beasts Of The Southern Wild – and the many point-of-view shots that fill the screen after his daring escape cannot help but feel like crutches used for want of more original ideas.
Room works best when its characters’ wounds, fears and conflicts are left unspoken, hidden in plain sight for the actors to pick up on and run, with Abrahamson’s camera (handled by This Is England’s Danny Cohen) providing discreet support. As filmed from a perspective similar to Jack’s own, the outside world and its benevolent adults look much stranger, more threatening than the familiar boogeyman that was Old Nick2. Patient, supportive step-grandfather Leo (Tom McCamus), with his dark eyebrows and craggy face, instills unconscious fear within us because we associate him with the film’s only other semi-functional paternal figure (a haggard William H. Macy briefly appears as Joy’s broken, defeated father) and his features communicate information that isn’t always easy to decipher. Compared to the much more nakedly evil Nick, he may as well be an alien. It is thus quite fitting that his eventual connection to Jack should result from his nurturing and playful side, rather than any display of authority on his part – paternity undercuts patriarchy.
But the idea Abrahamson and Donoghue’s adventures in unfamiliarity explore most successfully is the complicated, half-articulated cocktail of love, fear and resentment that drifts from parent to child. Such tension is visible in Joy’s interactions with Jack, but bleeds out more explicitly whenever she shares the screen with her mother Nancy (Joan Allen, excellent as always), most memorably in an argument scene in which each actress seems to involuntarily regress back to a kind of unresolved youth, as if this were simply the delayed continuation of a fight Joy had started as a teen. While never as powerfully evocative as the Essie Davis/Noah Wisesman duel from The Babadook, these moments magnify the characters’ emotional prisons without sugarcoating or exploiting them.
It may tread more familiar ground than the plot’s sensational coups de théâtre let on – think of François Truffaut’s The Wild Child – but Room’s vision of motherhood as both an inescapable connection to past pain – as well as a possible way out of it – is rendered with enough poignancy and insight for its missed opportunities to be forgiven.
1Barring Mad Max: Fury Road, unless one excludes the idea of Max and Furiosa as equal protagonists.
2A nickname that, in a touch that hits just the right point between subtle and on-the-nose, happens to be one of many used to describe the Devil.