Truck. Wiggle out. Jump. Run. Somebody. These words, accompanied by the visuals of a perspiring young boy frantically running away from a lumbering, shadowy figure in the background seems ripped straight out of the climax to a B-movie thriller. In Room (2015), this scene surprisingly takes place an hour into the movie, and the rest of the film is devoted to exploring the lingering terror and broken relationships in the aftermath of the escape. While at first glance a run of the mill horror story, Room is, at heart, the quintessential survivor’s tale.
Room, a 2015 film from director Lenny Abrahamson starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, tells the story of Joy, a 26-year-old woman who is abducted and locked in a derelict room for seven years. During her imprisonment, Joy begets a five-year-old son whom she names Jack, and, out of a desire to protect him, decides to tell him that their prison, dubbed Room, is the only world that exists. After Jack witnesses Joy’s captor, Old Nick, torment her with his nightly visits, Joy musters up the courage to tell Jack the truth about Room. When she finally escapes from Old Nick’s oppression, Joy is faced with a community that has profoundly changed, while Jack attempts to overcome his fear of an alien world.
Room is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, and, as is expected of a film that has the novel’s author as the screenwriter, many of the original work’s themes carry over to the film. A theme that runs through both versions of the story is how isolation and trauma affect the characters. After Joy breaks free of Room, she enters into a community that has, at least from her perspective, undergone drastic changes; her return is met with unprecedented fanfare, her parents have difficulty accepting a daughter who has been transformed into someone unrecognizable and she questions whether her decision to deceive Jack and raise him in such a toxic environment was a selfish one. Wracked with guilt, Joy goes as far as to attempt suicide.
Neither is Jack free from the clutches of isolation. The revelation that there is a world beyond Room stupefies Jack, and he is positively awestruck when he experiences the outside world for the first time. Streetlamps flit past his eyes, leaving behind vestiges of light, and various suburban noises blend into an inaudible din; the camera randomly wanders from object to object, echoing the confusion Jack feels in an unfamiliar world.
▲ A scene from Room featuring Brie Larson as Joy. Provided by youtube.com
Aside from depicting Jack’s reaction to the outside world in a realistic manner, Room fully dives into the repercussions that prolonged isolation would have on an impressionable child. Joy’s explanation that Room is not the entire world is met with furious denial from Jack. When Joy’s father, who sees Jack as the embodiment of the oppression Joy endured, rejects him, a dejected Jack distances himself from others. Perhaps most poignantly, overwhelmed by his new relationships and an entirely alien reality, Jack finds himself yearning to return to the comfort and ignorance of Room. By tackling issues such as Stockholm syndrome and depression, Room demonstrates that the aftermath of isolation is potentially as devastating as the experience itself, if not more so.
Another aspect of note is that Room treats Joy with the dignity and respect she deserves. A disconcerting trend that has pervaded recent films is their propensity to fetishize, for the lack of a better term, the victim’s trials and tribulations. Whether it concerns a trivial act of violence or years’ worth of torture, films such as Compliance (2012) and The Revenant (2015) indulge in the protagonist’s suffering; the camera practically ogles the victims’ pained expressions whenever their abusers dole out punishment.
R oom thankfully subverts this deplorable trope, depicting Joy’s victimization at Old Nick’s hands as nothing more than a means of galvanizing her to action, instead of focusing on the abuse itself to elicit sympathy from the audience. Tellingly, whenever Old Nick rapes Joy, the audience can only hear the creak of the bed along with Joy’s muffled gasps; the terror of the scene is succinctly conveyed through Jack’s horrified expression. This restrained approach never demeans the victim by portraying her harrowing experience in an erotic manner and puts the spotlight on where it should rightly belong, on the characters’ recuperation and readjustment to society.
The cinematography in the film is impeccably staged. The first hour or so of Room is set solely in Joy’s small, cramped prison, but strangely enough, it never feels claustrophobic. Instead, the camera looks at Room from Jack’s perspective. To Jack, nothing is too mundane; everything is a source of knowledge. The camera likewise lingers on the sink, the tub, the stove and the like, ensuring that the objects are always highlighted in different light and from different angles. The cinematography also emphasizes the skylight, the only window and source of light in Room. To Joy, it is a precious outlet into the outside world and a symbolic ray of hope, the metaphorical drive that allows her to persevere; to Jack, it is an enigmatic threshold between the world and nothingness.
It would be amiss to overlook Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s phenomenal performances. Larson, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Room, injects Joy with a feverish desperation and tenacity, making her freedom that much more cathartic. She also wears a perpetual look of exhaustion, reflecting the terrible ordeal Joy has had to overcome and the weariness that such an experience would entail. Tremblay is equally stellar, infusing the film with a much-needed sense of wonder, and all the while gives an extremely convincing portrayal of a sheltered but inquisitive child.
Room is the ultimate risk-taker. Rather than exploiting Joy’s predicament for drama and suspense, it emphasizes the difficulty of coping with the traumatic event. Instead of telling the story from Joy’s point of view, Room looks at the world through Jack’s eyes, leading to a film that is both disorienting and wickedly original. Room’s greatest accomplishment, however, may be the entire second half of the film, which is wholly devoted to the convalescence of the main characters. It shows that the filmmakers truly understand what the survivors of trauma are going through; that the terror continues long after it is seemingly gone.