Perhaps the most effective horror film of the Halloween season has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, zombies, or other assorted spooky monsters, it has to do with the loss of one’s self against their will. With Room, director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donaghue, adapting her own novel, have crafted a relentlessly emotional horror film, where the constant threat and after effects of sexual assault leave ripples across the lives of others. Room isn’t an easy film to sit through, but with its powerful lead performance by Brie Larson it is impossible to look away unless you’re grasping for a fresh tissue to wipe your eyes.
For the past 7 years, Joy (Larson) has been trapped in a confined room by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped the young woman and left her imprisoned in a tiny garden shed for his own sick pleasures. However, five years ago Joy gave birth to Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy whose only knowledge of the world is in this ten-by-ten room. Despite the threat of violent retribution that is present if Joy disobeys her cruel captor, she continually tries to scheme for a way towards freedom to end her living nightmare. After successfully sneaking Jack to the outside world, the young boy is able to get help and mother and son are returning home for the first time together. But life on the outside is difficult on both mother and child, as one has forgotten how to live a normal life and the other has never known the world outside the confinements of a tiny garden shed. The first shock for Joy on the outside is that her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy) have split up, with Joy’s mother marrying Leo (Tom McCamus). With lingering medical and psychological issues, and a media firestorm surrounding them, Joy and Jack continue to face great adversity.
The opening scenes of Room give us a glimpse into the horrific world that Joy was dragged into and Jack was raised in. Larson is phenomenal in the role, giving her character a sense of fear, compassion, and frustration. Once again, Brie Larson proves that she is among the best young actresses working today. As her son, Jacob Remblay is equally wonderful. His take on Jack retains a youthful innocence in a situation where there is no innocence. Despite a few wobbly moments of narration from Jack, Remblay avoids all the trappings of a child performance, never irritating just adding that extra layer of humanity as much of the story is told through his perspective. Sean Bridges gives an unsettling performance as the evil Old Nick. When he’s in the frame you feel the same fright and terror as the characters on screen. As for Joy’s family, William H. Macy is barely in the movie long enough for his performance to register anything more than a blip, though Joan Allen gives a strong heartfelt performance and Tom McCamus adds a feeling of warmth and understanding to the stressful situations at hand.
For the most part Donaghue’s adaptation of her own novel avoids being just an exercise in emotional browbeating. This story is very much concerned with the bond between mother and child under the most unimaginable horrors. There are only two moments in the whole film that made me cringe with dissatisfaction – one being when Jack is rescued and one cop is just dismissive of a five-year-old boy that is obviously not well; the other being a scene where Joy sits down for a television interview featuring questions that seem like they’re ripped from a parody. But those moments are minor compared to the heart-wrenching whole of Room. Amazingly, director Lenny Abrahamson makes the confined space seem much more livable and spacious early in the going, but the tight quarters get more and more claustrophobic as the film moves on. Even when freed, Abrahamson frames shots in the nice suburban sanctuary where the staircase have bars that represent a different kind of prison for this newly liberated duo. There’s no escaping that horrific prison of sexual violation and its lingering after effects.
Room is a movie that pushes its audience into uncomfortable areas in its dramatic exploration of sexual trauma and isolation, but it never seems intent on just leaving everyone down in the dumps. It’s a striking piece of work that is anchored by some crafty direction by Abrahamson and astounding performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Remblay. Room is a heartbreaking story told incredibly well, and will likely earn some awards consideration for its leading lady. Just make sure you don’t forget those tissues.