Review: Room (2015)

Difficult experience, excellent movie

I had a friend in university who wouldn’t read Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita (1955) for a Creative Writing class. Her reasoning was that what Lolita depicted was deeply immoral – I believe her exact words when describing it were “sick”. At the time, I was confused by what she meant because, well, that’s the point of Lolita: Humbert Humbert (the novel’s protagonist and narrator) is evil. Pure, utter evil. The whole plot of the novel is Humbert trying to convince the reader that his actions were in some way justified, and it’s only because of Nabokov’s skill as a writer that the reader *might* fall for Humbert’s lies and tricks and start enjoying the novel. And the trick of it, and where the joy that reading Lolita comes from, is looking past Humbert’s lies and seeing him for the horrible human being that he is. There’s a guilt to that, a horrifying realisation that you’re enjoying analysing the ramblings of a narcissistic monster.

Something similar happens with Room. Like Lolita, it is an outstanding text (whether a novel or a film) but as such it only exists because horrific events occurred within the narrative, and the implication of these events are always there. It’s not quite the same – for one, instead of seeing the events from the villain, we instead view the film from the point of view of his victims – but there is still that lingering schadenfreude throughout the viewing experience, a malingering guilt about it all. It’s not something unique to Room, but I feel it is more pronounced here because of the film’s quality.

Room has two protagonists, two subjective narrators from which we view the film’s narrative. The first of these is Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay, a young boy born into Room. The second is his mother, the appropriately named Ma, who is played by Brie Larson. Tremblay gives a great performance as Jack, managing to hit all his emotional cues when needed, and manages to walk a fine line between being sweet and being overly annoying. That might sound like I’m being overly critical of a child actor, but I’m not. As I mentioned, Room has two subjective narrators, and from Ma’s point of view, annoyance is part of Jack’s character. Sometimes. He’s a great kid, but at the same time, there is that part of Ma that wishes that he wasn’t there, that she wasn’t there, that there was never a there in the first place, that everything that had happened to her in Room never happened. While that might sound cruel, under the circumstances it’s a perfectly understandable feeling for Ma to have, and by letting us see Jack from Ma’s point of view, Room manages to intertwine two closely linked narratives and tell its (relatively simple) narrative with a very high level of sophistication.

And I think that’s one of the real strength of film as opposed to novel. Through film we can get a more nuanced view in film without it being obtrusive, and we can get a better view of Ma as her own character – which in a story like this is paramount. And speaking of Ma, I don’t think they could have cast the role any other way because Larson plays the role flawlessly. She gives a nuanced performance here that is indomitable and defeated, incredibly mature, teenage and motherly, not all at once, and I have to admit that I preferred the scenes that are Ma-centric over the ones centred on Jack. Once again, it’s not that Tremblay gives a bad performance, but Larson’s performance is simply outstanding throughout the film. I’d be lying if I said that Ma didn’t remind me a little of Grace from Larson’s previous outing Short Term 12 (2013) but Larson’s performance manages to separate her two roles excellently. Room has been nominated for four Academy Awards, and it’s going to be a very big disappointment if Larson doesn’t win her Actress in a Leading Role Award.

The supporting cast, I think, is alright. They give good performances. If I have one comment about them, it would be that I was very surprised to see William H. Macy as Ma’s biological father and Jack’s grandfather. Macy has been a well-known character actor for decades, but after the tour de force that he has managed to be in the US remake of Shameless (2010), it’s truly surprising to see him so subdued. Still, it was nice to see him there. Another actor about whom I feel warrants discussion is the villain of the piece. I’m just going to say it: Sean Bridger, who plays Old Nick, is terrifying. He plays the role as an everyman, the same kind of quiet jerk that you run into everyday and probably don’t even remember that you did afterwards, and that’s real horror.

In terms of directorship and cinematography, Room makes great use of intense close-ups and out of focus shots in order to increase the feeling of claustrophobia and agoraphobia being felt by the characters – this is one of the ways that you can tell which shot/scene is meant to be from whose point of view, and I think it works really well to show which scene is from whose point of view. For example, a lot of shots whilst in Room are from up close, which suggests that they’re from Ma’s point of view (as that would be where she feels trapped), but when they’re out of room and the shot is from Jack’s point of view, it’ll again be close up or blurry. It’s an uncomfortable way of shooting, but I think it really helps to reinforce the film’s themes and, again, show whose point of view the scene is from. It’s not the most stylish way of shooting, but it works.

Like cinematography, sound and music is rather minimalist in Room. That’s not to say that it’s not there, but rather it takes a backseat to everything else happening on screen. I suspect this is because of the film’s (rather small) budget of $6 million dollars, and I think that the film would have worked better with a bigger musical presence behind it. Music is the one part of Room that I felt was definitely perfunctory. Don’t get me wrong, the music is adequate, but it’s not outstanding, and in an outstanding film like Room, that’s definitely disappointing.

There’s a lot to say about Room and a lot of that would be positive. In fact, to be honest, I wish that I could talk more about the film’s story, but any in-depth analysis would probably spoil the narrative. It’s a difficult film to watch: there’s a subtle implication of horror throughout the film, a level of guilt that comes from watching it, and a wish that (even on a level of meta-fictional level) that it never existed, but it is an incredible film. And if a film’s outstanding quality isn’t a good enough reason to watch it then I don’t know what is.

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