Not a day goes by that I don’t think about this film, but it isn’t a film I would like to watch again anytime soon.
Room is the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy born and brought up in captivity; he is the result of his mother’s rape by her kidnapper. He has never been outside the confines of the soundproofed shed the two of them call home. He has never felt fresh air on his face, never played with another child, never seen a dog. His whole world is Room.
That is, until Ma decides it’s time to break out.
The first thing that strikes you about this film is the performances of Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson as Jack and Joy (Ma). Larson, who has been quietly bubbling away on the backburner of independent cinema, at last is brought forward to truly showcase her incredible talent.
Helped no doubt by the time she spent bonding with her young co-star, her self-imposed isolation before production began, and the long hours shooting inside the cramped 11 x 11 set, Larson is able to inhabit the role of Joy so completely as to keep the viewer hanging on her every utterance and micro-expression. You share her frustrations, you despair at the resignation with which she welcomes her nighttime visits from Old Nick (the name she and Jack have given their captor), and ultimately you understand her. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.
Tremblay meanwhile is a unique talent: a brilliant child actor who throughout this film never puts a foot wrong, never a beat out of time. The part of Jack could easily have been annoying – as inquisitive children often are, after a while – but you fall in love with him; it becomes impossible not to share in his fear and wonderment at the world outside Room.
It is no spoiler to say that Joy and Jack escape Room (it’s in the trailer), but how they orchestrate their escape will have you on the edge of your seat, holding your breath until you are blue in the face, desperately willing them on. Joy’s subterfuge, Jack’s escape from his father’s truck, and his subsequent rescue by an unwitting passerby and the police is perhaps one of the most memorable sequences of the year, let alone this film. Your heart will burst a million times.
This is a film of two halves then: inside Room and outside Room, and both Larson and Tremblay have huge character arcs to portray. The former has been raped countless times, and raised a child (it is also hinted that she has previously miscarried); on the surface Joy is optimistic but the very fact she has convinced Jack that only Room and its contents are real, and everything on TV is fake, suggests she has very little hope for either of them ever being free. They are freed though, and she is reunited with her family, but this brings with it new challenges: coping with her parents’ divorce, media attention, and people judging her decisions. Joy has not planned for this, and how she deals with it is as fascinating and heartbreaking to watch as her time in Room.
Equally engrossing as Joy’s readjustment is Jack’s assimilation into society, his journey to understanding the world. “I’ve been in the world 37 hours,” he says shortly after escaping Room, “The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!”
It feels inappropriate to say Jack is relatable, but how he describes the world is very much how one might imagine we all saw the world once; it’s an excellent piece of writing perfectly delivered by Tremblay. Jack’s adjustment is perhaps harder than Joy’s, but he is unburdened with the same reality she knew so approaches it in a very different, more positive way to his mother. Ultimately of course, this will save her, which makes for an interesting role reversal: inside Room Jack was dependent on Ma, whereas outside she is dependent on him. It’s a theme that runs deep in this film, that of family and what it means; beyond biological, what are our relationships with these people we share blood with? Are they relationships at all?
Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own 2010 novel) should be lauded for creating a piece of work that is both crushingly bleak at times, but joyful and uplifting as well. It is life-affirming and soul-destroying, and will leave you emotionally exhausted.
The decision to have Jake narrate the film, and to shoot many moments from his point of view, allows the viewer to see things as a child does; we are watching events unfold through the eyes of the most vulnerable character, which only heightens the impact of the film and one’s connection to it.
It is also impossible to watch this film without echoes of real-life events passing through your mind. Donoghue wrote her novel after the Josef Fritzl case but before Amanda Berry escaped with her daughter from the basement of Ariel Castro. This isn’t just a film then, this is happening, has happened, will happen. How many other women and children like Joy and Jack are being held captive right now in the vast expanse of the USA, the basements of remote towns across Europe, Russia, the world? Room forces you to confront this heartbreaking reality, though never in a preachy way; that’s not its style. That message is, like the film’s direction and central performances, subtle but deeply affecting.
Room is not just one of the finest films of the year; it is one of the finest films of the last 20 years. Like so many of those films falling into that latter category however – 12 Years a Slave, Drive, Requiem for a Dream, Schindler’s List – it is a difficult film to recommend others to watch. They are not easy to enjoy, and you might never want to watch them again, but you have to see them at least once. Room is a must-see – it is too important, too powerful, to be ignored. You will be upset by it, but you will be warmed by it, and you will never forget it.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 4…
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2016
20 – The Witch
19 = Son of Saul
19 = The Hateful Eight
18 – Midnight Special
17 – American Honey
16 = Embrace of the Serpent
16 = Captain America: Civil War
15 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14 – Creed
13 – Hail, Caesar!
12 – The Revenant
11 – Weiner
10 – Everybody Wants Some!!
9 – Zootropolis
8 – Anomalisa
7 – Paterson
6 – The Neon Demon
5 – The Nice Guys
4 – Room
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2016 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2016!