The two most frightening concepts in “Room,” one of the most remarkable movies of 2015, are freedom and the lack of it.
We spend roughly the first half inside a dwelling in the backyard of a predator who kidnapped a woman seven years ago and keeps her there with the boy he fathered by her. We spend the second half in the outside world, where Joy (Brie Larson) and 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) try to put their lives together, once the media frenzy subsides and they are allowed to live like ordinary people – an idea that fascinates and frightens the boy but terrifies his mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”) and writer Emma Donoghue (who adapted her own novel) come from Ireland, yet their transfer of this tale to small-city America remains pitch-perfect. Without sensationalizing the situation, they make us wonder about the storage shed in our own neighbor’s yard with a double lock on its heavy iron door.
We begin with no back story. The captor, whom they call Old Nick without knowing his name, has outfitted their single room with second-hand appliances and furniture: a bed, refrigerator, stove, microwave, bathtub, wardrobe (where Jack stays on nights Old Nick rapes Joy) and the television set that gives Jack his understanding of the outside world.
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Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who gets his name from an outdated British term for Satan, comes and goes unexpectedly; he’s usually grumpy, because he doesn’t feel appreciated in his role as provider, though he’s seldom malevolent. In some perverse way, he seems to consider this threesome a family.
Joy and Jack have become sadly accommodated to their circumstances, but she finally envisions a way to get Jack outside and in touch with a potential rescuer. When the plan succeeds, the two settle in with a real family: Jack’s grandmother Nancy (Joan Allen) and Leo (Tom McCamus), the agreeable man with whom she lives. But Joy finds liberty has constraints, too.
Not a word or a gesture seems false. Tremblay, one of the most natural young people I’ve seen on screen, shows how Jacob could accept his cramped existence yet blossom anxiously outside it. Larson makes us believe in Joy’s nurturing personality and crushing sense of failure for not begging Old Nick to let her only companion be put up for adoption.
Abrahamson and Donoghue subtly convey the strangeness of the outside world. Jack walks tentatively down a flight of stairs; we realize he’s seen them on TV but has no idea what they feel like. Joy’s dad (William H. Macy) struggles briefly to accept a grandson fathered by a psychotic rapist, but he fails and drifts quietly out of the story thereafter. The filmmakers’ restraint remains unusual in a world of cinematic excess: They provide no catharsis, no balancing of scales, only the quietest sense of closure.
Two guys who looked to be in their 20s traipsed down the stairs as soon as the credits began at the preview screening. “So nothing happens,” said one, possibly disappointed that Nancy didn’t blow Old Nick’s head off while uttering a Schwarzenegger-style one-liner.
No, nothing happens – except for two broken human beings learning how they might become whole again. For some moviegoers, that will be plenty.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Leo McCamus, Sean Bridgers
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: R (language)
Raleigh: Grande. Chapel Hill: Chelsea. Durham: Southpoint.