Friday, January 15, 2016

'Room' (2015) directed by Lenny Abrahamson

I went into Room practically blind. Judging by the pastel-blue posters on the tube showing smiley hugs and promising "life affirming & awe-inspiring" good times, I figured I was in for a charming, slightly twee drama. Once I'd learned that it was by Frank director Lenny Abrahamson I revised my expectations upwards, but was still expecting something basically harmless.

Well, it turns out Room is about a woman who's abducted, confined to a garden shed for seven years and repeatedly raped. Eesh, not quite the indie dramedy I'd anticipated.

Joy (Brie Larson) was snatched at the age of 17 by her abductor, the diabolical 'Old Nick' (Sean Bridgers). She's imprisoned in a reinforced garden shed, sealed away from the the outside world. Escape is impossible and her life is entirely dependant on her captor. If Joy disobeys him he can punish her physically or withhold food, heat or medicine, if she somehow managed to kill him, then she's stuck starving to death inside a locked room with a rotting corpse.

The only ray of light in this nightmare is Joy's son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Fathered by her captor and born inside 'room', he's never experienced the outside world. From his perspective the world begins and ends within these grubby walls, everything outside a product of television, existing in a fuzzily defined 'outer space'. Room opens on Jack's fifth birthday, when Joy decides that he's old enough to know the truth about his imprisonment and resolves that the two will escape their hell.

Mild spoilers follow - though nothing unspoiled in the film's trailer/poster etc.

They escape at roughly the midway point of the film, the rest of the narrative exploring how a child raised in captivity perceives the world at large, and how Joy recovers from her seven year ordeal.

First and foremost, the way Abrahamson approaches the problem of setting half of the film within a small room is technically brilliant. Told from the point of view of Jack, the space appears to expand and contract between scenes, neatly reflecting his perspective. Along the same lines, everyday objects take on totemic significance. This combines to create a complex, believable microcosm within the shed, marking the boundaries of Jack's world. 

Only rarely do we feel truly claustrophobic, usually when we slide into viewing the room from Joy's more enlightened perspective. Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donaghue (adapting her own novel) get fascinating philosophical mileage in exploring how Jack perceives the universe, the distinctions between fact and fiction and his mother's frustration at explaining the most basic of cosmological concepts.

This all pays off in the back end of the movie when Jack has to rapidly assimilate into a world overflowing with stimuli. Here, the film emphasises chaos and materialism, using Jack's unique viewpoint to critique a world that we can't help but take for granted.

Within this lies a somewhat awkward argument. At times in the latter half, the characters become semi-nostalgic for the simplicity of life inside the rape-shed. In captivity, objects have only what value the inhabitants assign to them; be it practical or emotional. A melted plastic spoon - junk, essentially - has personality and intrinsic worth. Contrast this with the gaudy pile of toys from anonymous well-wishers that sits, unplayed with, in the corner of Joy's parents' living room.

Room doesn't resolve this argument. The closest it gets is a late revisit to the shed, now stripped bare and drained of any power. Exposure to a culture of commerce has comprehensively erased Jack's self-devised universe, leaving behind mere fossilised remains. Ignorance of a materialistic world might be blissful, but it's still ignorance. The only honest option is to engage with it sceptically and suspiciously, as Jack does so by instinct.

For all the filth, misery, rape and bodily decay, Room ends up surprisingly uplifting, demonstrating a process of recovery and restoration after unimaginable misery. It's helped by a fine performance from Brie Larson, who makes Joy dance on a knife-edge as she teeters between protecting her son, maintaining her dignity and keeping a grip on her personality. 

The real star is Jacob Tremblay, who has improved by leaps and bounds since his roles in The Smurfs 2 and Booger the Magic Ferret. The success of Room rests upon his shoulders, boy howdy he delivers. Jack is a performance sensitively layered with all manner of complexities; chief among them a near alien view of the world. As the narrative develops so does he, gradually appearing from underneath his ragged mop of hair.

Room isn't perfect - the tight and traumatic first half is way better than the sprawling looseness of the second - but it's an undeniably affecting watch. Abrahamson finds a spark of life and affection in the midst of pitch black ichor and gradually kindles it into a blazing warmness. An impressive piece of cinema.

Room is on general release today.

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