A Room at the End of the World
The most harrowing passage of Room is also its most lovely. A young boy, attempting to escape a lifetime of captivity sees the full, unobscured sky for the first time. The shot holds for a long time. The boy’s face is expression is something beyond awe and disbelief. It is said that medieval mapmakers would draw dragons to represent locations yet unexplored. For 5-year-old Jake (Jacob Tremblay), the protagonist of Room, everything outside the tiny shed in which he has lived his whole life is dragons.
Room was directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel. They have created a story of remarkable focus and empathy. It opens with Jake’s mother, Joy (Brie Larson), going through their morning routine on his fifth birthday. She wakes him up. They exercise within their tiny space. They bathe together, and assemble a meager breakfast. Their groceries, we learn, are provided by someone named Old Nick. We quickly understand the situation without it being spelled out. They are being imprisoned by Old Nick. And given that Jack believes he dropped into this place he calls Room from outer space, and has no concept of the outside world, we can quickly put together the sinister reality of his conception.
Abrahamson’s commitment to Jake’s point of view almost never wavers. It allows us, people from Outside, to figure out a lot of expository detail. The toilet tank has no cover. They eat with spoons. The one knife they use to prepare food is blunted. This isn’t just a setup; the visual detail tells the story of years of failed attempts by Joy to escape, of Old Nick’s relentless covering of his bases in keeping she and Jake captive.
Larson and Tremblay don’t simply carry this movie; they uplift it to greatness. In the film’s first act, Tremblay is an innocent and Larson a focused survivor, a woman with her focus drilled to two objectives: raise her son, and when he gets old enough, escape with him. There’s an astonishing scene where she, all at once, tries to explain the outside world to him. Her frustration at his disbelief is heartbreaking. Think of a screwball set piece of maddening misunderstanding with all the humor replaced with desperation, grief, and hopelessness.
After escaping Room, Joy and Jake find themselves in a world that is permanently changed for her, and unbelievable for him. The second act, which takes place outside Room, is where Tremblay delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Cynical critics often dismiss child actors as simply being themselves. I can’t fathom Tremblay simply doing that as he begins to explore a world that consists entirely of new things. His performance is physically and emotionally convincing, as he tries to figure out stairs, Lego, and dogs. He never falters even as he is asked to play a character like none I’ve seen before.
Room is not a film that one enjoys. It is at times unrelentingly tense, or overwhelmingly sad. But a week after seeing it I haven’t been able to shake it its power. Its characters go through horrors all too real, all too within comprehension. They emerge together. They are shaken. They are frightened. But they emerge. That in itself is more affirming and affecting than a more sentimental approach could achieve. Jake’s narration imparts no cloying wisdom. He describes things as he sees them. At the end of the film, I was happy simply that he had more to see.