When you come out of a screening of Room, it is hard not to feel dazed. Everyone feels just a little too close. Walking down the street away from the cinema, I was almost overwhelmed with a disconcerting haze of claustrophobia. I imagine this is the exact opposite kind of dazedness to that which Jack, the 5-year old protagonist of Room, is met with upon his first foray into the outside world. This foray marks a shift in the film, in that it finally departs from the eponymous 10×10 shed which forms, exclusively, the setting of the film’s first half. It is a testament to the effectiveness of this first half that one is still feeling its consequences by the end of the film.
During this first half, Lenny Abrahamson creates a whole world within a tiny space. A clever use of focal lengths and framing ensures that the prison-shed can at times feel surprisingly expansive. Abrahamson knows when and how to direct our attention away from the size of the setting, allowing us to forget its claustrophobic nature for long enough to focus on key exchanges of dialogue.
It is these exchanges, between mother and son, which sit at the heart of Room. Much has been said of Brie Larson’s performance as Ma, and she is excellent at communicating honesty in a disarmingly unostentatious manner. But she is brilliantly brought out by Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing ability to be both naïve and knowing in a way that only a child can. I say ‘be’ rather than ‘portray’ because it never feels as if Tremblay is acting. There is a supreme comfortableness here, and it grounds the relationship between mother and son (and, more widely, the entire film). Never would I have thought that I’d cry at the act of walking down some stairs, but the simple pathos invoked by seeing a young boy cower away from three stairs before being carefully and lovingly helped down them by his mother was clearly too much for me. This was by no means a one-off occurrence – I lost count of the number of times tears came to my eyes. Stephen Rennicks soundtrack attempts to play off this invocation of pathos and, though often poignant, it sometimes misses the mark by being overblown or trite – sounding a little like a TV advert for a bank. Thankfully, these misjudgements only occasionally impinge on the overall experience of the film.
Soundtrack aside, the film’s handling of tone is subtle and astute. Brie Larson’s ability to switch very quickly and very naturally from playful and light-hearted to desperate and serious – something all good mothers must be able to do – is key to guiding the film’s tone, especially in its first half where she is Jack’s only source of knowledge about the world. Danny Cohen’s cinematography also deserves praise. The earlier scenes, in the claustrophobic ‘room’, often employ naturalistic lighting and handheld camerawork, but this all changes in the post-escape hospital scene. Like a modern day Mowgli, the longhaired Jack, clad only in underwear, examines his surroundings before carefully climbing down off of the bed and walking slowly across the hospital room to the large windows, through which bright daylight seeps into the room. The scene, in its brightness and use of a fantastically realised tracking shot, indicates through its visual language that it is the start of a new chapter, both in the film and in the protagonists’ lives.
Interestingly, the post-escape scenes which form the film’s second half are, at times, harder to watch than the scenes which take place within ‘room’. The outside world, after seven years in captivity, is harsh and overwhelming. The talk show interviewer, searching for good primetime TV, is toxic under a façade of friendliness, and relations between the protagonists and the family they return to are often strained. No longer the sole method through which Jack learns about the world around him, Ma loses the need to maintain what Larsson herself refers to as the ‘two faces’ of the character. She no longer needs to seem strong, and so quickly breaks down. Jack, conversely, becomes the stronger of the pair. In a late scene, when Ma is asking for forgiveness from him, he says simply: ‘It’s okay. Don’t do it again.’ In another scene, he sends his mother the long locks of hair he cuts off, so that she can have his ‘strong’. He becomes, in many senses, the parent.
Room, then, is a film concerned with the bond between mother and offspring. Ma and Jack’s relationship leads the film, and the lack of connection between Ma and her own Mother is a major cause of the tension in the film’s latter half. But it is not purely a personal film, concerned as it is also with our perceptions of reality. In ‘room’, mother and son were the creators of meaning within a space which they were forced to make their whole world. Both, in their own ways, struggle to come to terms with a world in which reality is not controllable. There is an incredibly simple shot in the film’s second half which zooms slowly toward Jack as he constructs a structure out of Lego, sat in the comfortingly small space of a wardrobe – a piece of furniture that served as his bedroom in ‘room’. When the shot is repeated moments later in reverse – zooming away from Jack as he disassembles the Lego – it gains a strange resonance, depicting a child desperate to control the reality around him. Escape not only brings with it freedom, but also – for a while at least – lostness.
Originally published in the Cherwell newspaper, 19 January 2016.