Warning: This review contains spoilers, albeit nothing that hasn’t already been spoiled by the film’s rather questionable trailer.
Everyone in Hollywood is familiar with the concept of the “elevator pitch:” the concise proposal that any filmmaker should have prepared in case they ever find themselves riding in the same elevator (or in some other comparable situation) with somebody who could potentially make that project happen. The thing is, elevator pitches are also an important part of being a movie fan, especially the kind of filmbuff who routinely has acquaintances coming up to them and say “hey, you see a lot of movies, what are some of the good movies out now.” This is a fraught question. If you tell them what you really think is your favorite movie out right now you end up sending them to a three hour Turkish movie or a Lars Von Trier provocation or some other movie that they probably aren’t ready for unless they’re as big a movie fan as you, but you also don’t want to condescend to them and assume that the only thing you can recommend to them is a Hollywood genre film, but also because even if you recommend something that you think “regular” people would like it can be hard to explain why in one sentence. Take the new film Room, which won the audience prize at Toronto (a common signifier of accessible arthouse fare) and which I think will be well liked by anyone who gives it a chance but which is also a film whose elevator pitch starts with “a woman is kidnapped and sexually assaulted for seven years,” a sentence which will almost certainly be met with some uneasy look.
Hear me out. The film is about a woman named Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) who was kidnapped by a strange man she knows only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) at age seventeen and kept locked in a ten by ten foot shed that’s been converted into a sort of apartment and is apparently repeatedly raped by this horrible man. At some point in her captivity she became pregnant and gave birth inside the shed. The story picks up five years later as Joy is trying to raise this five year old child named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) under these extremely trying circumstances. How does one do that? Joy’s solution was to lie to the child and rather than explain that he’s being held in captivity to tell him that this small room is the full extent of the world and that everything he sees on the television they’ve been given is a compete fabrication that’s been sent from outer space. This allows the boy to, in a sense, not know what he’s missing and makes him feel a lot more comfortable than he might otherwise have been while in captivity but also forces the mother to live a lie and perhaps makes the situation a lot harder for her. At a point though, it becomes clear that they can’t live like this for much longer and soon Joy begins plotting her escape.
The people behind the advertising for Room seem to be keenly aware of the “elevator pitch” problem that I described earlier and have opted to sell the film as a triumph over adversity and have cut trailers which more or less give away the whole movie. These trailers are accurate in their reflection of the film’s tone but they’re also spoil the fact that the film’s second half is very different from the first, and knowing this ahead of time isn’t ideal. However, since the cat is clearly out of the bag I’m not going to dance around the fact that this mother and child escape from their captivity any further. That escape scene, by the way, is really tense and very well rendered but this shouldn’t be misconstrued as some kind of escape movie either. Instead this is a movie about the emotional ramifications of the trauma that “Old Nick” inflicted on these two people and the existential quandary that Joy accidentally created by choosing not to tell Jack about the outside world.
What really impressed me about the film was the way it managed to deal with the horror of that first hour without flinching while still preventing the film from being unwatchably oppressive. Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the source novel) seem to have accomplished this by subtly shifting the viewpoint in these early sections between the mother and the son. If the story had been entirely told by the mother it would have almost felt like a grim horror film and would have been really hard to sit though, but if it had entirely been told by the son it would have been really strangely upbeat in a way that would be off-putting, but Abrahamson seems to find a perfect balance and these shifts in viewpoint don’t feel gimmicky or even noticeable. In the second half of the film he finds his way around another whole new set of challenges because there’s some stuff in that second half that could have come off kind of Hallmark if not handled just right. Somehow Abrahamson does manage to make Jack and Joy’s re-entry into society inspirational but not cheesy, in part because he doesn’t ignore the challenges that they’d both face.
Of course a big part of why Abrahamson is able to pull off this trick is that he has a really strong cast to work with. Obviously Brie Larson is the main attraction here and continues the move into more serious material that she began with the 2013 indie Short Term 12. Larson does a good job here of capturing this character’s emotional turmoil without over-playing it and also successfully taps into the fact that she’s playing a character that was kidnapped at seventeen and had her emotional growth somewhat stunted as a result. Her main co-star is of course Jacob Tremblay as Jack, who does a pretty good job of not being an annoying kid. Tremblay is about nine years old now and was presumably about eight when the movie was being filmed but does a good job of plausibly playing a character that’s about five. I wouldn’t necessarily rank this among the greatest child performances of recent years like Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild or Hunter McCracken in Tree of Life but he does do a pretty good job to be sure. There are also a variety of strong performances by other cast members like Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, and Tom McCamus but the heart of it all comes back to those two main performances.
I saw an HBO special a couple years back where four famous standup comedians were talking about their trade and I remember there being a part of that concersation where Louie C.K. mentioned a controversial joke he used to tell about rape which kind of teetered on being in bad taste but still managed to avoid offending most audiences. Jerry Seinfeld pointed out that he thought the appeal of the joke wasn’t so much that it was actually funny so much as it was entertaining to see C.K. “tap-dance over six laser beams” in its construction. That’s kind of how I feel about Room, I don’t know that this is a story that I was ever really dying to see made into a film but I also can’t help but wonder and how skillfully the people who made it manage to escape pretty much every pitfall unscathed. Its sneaky in the way it gets its hooks into you and suddenly has you more invested in its characters than you think you would and in how it gets you on board with plot developments which would sound kind of questionable on paper.
**** out of Four