Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

True Grit

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room (A24/Caitlin Cronenberg)

The movie poster for Room shows a young mother, head tilted back, garbed in comfortable-looking gray, swinging her little boy in her arms. He’s wearing a plaid jacket, a raccoon hat, and a cute-as-the-dickens smile. The sky above them is a weave of clouds and azure; autumnal trees fan out behind them; a flock of birds soars. “Love knows no boundaries,” runs the tagline. The only dissonant note is a faint intersection of lines above them and to the left, suggesting a glass box around the pair. But you have to look for it to notice it.

I like to imagine how long it would take for an unwary moviegoer, presented with just that poster, to guess what Room is actually about. Maternal love and some sort of triumph of the human spirit — that much they could figure out. But it would probably take a lifetime’s worth of guesses to get from there to the movie’s horrifying hook.

That hook consists of what the title advertises: a room, probably ten-by-ten, in which the mother (Brie Larson) and her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), eat and sleep and wash and play and do, well, absolutely everything, because it’s where they’ve been held prisoner for years by an Ariel Castro–style kidnapper. But only the mother — she has a real name, Joy, but to the boy she’s only “Ma” — was actually kidnapped; Jack was born inside the room, fathered on his mother by her rapist, and the enclosed space is the only world he’s ever known.

Yet it’s a space that his mother has enchanted, with stories, drawings, and a mythologizing eye that turns every object into a capitalized landmark (Toilet, Wardrobe, Teevee, etc.) in her son’s nutshell of infinite space. And “Room” itself is capitalized, since so far as Jack knows it’s the world entire: Everything on the television is just imaginary, and beyond the walls and out-of-reach skylight there’s only outer space and the heaven from which he, her angel, was sent down.

Except that the devil is out there too, of course: “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), their violent and self-pitying captor-father, who appears nightly to rape Ma while Jack is kept hidden (at his mother’s demand) inside the wardrobe. Old Nick also brings (through magic, according to Ma’s mythmaking) their food and clothes and the occasional Sunday treat — such as the ingredients for the cake with which they celebrate Jack’s fifth birthday.

That celebration opens the movie, and it turns out to be the beginning of their captivity’s end. Events intervene that force Ma to reveal the truth (or some of it) to her son, and then to use him in a desperate bid for freedom, whose mix of high anxiety and total wonder as Jack encounters the world beyond Room makes for an extraordinary combination — as if the scenes of childhood in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life somehow retained their haunting ecstasy while also acquiring the furious tension of a Hitchcock sequence.

But the movie is intense long before the escape attempt arrives. The material is so raw and primal, the plot’s fairy-tale clarity so stark, that anyone who’s been a parent or a child will find himself wrung almost too raw to get the distance required for critical judgment on the art.

Which itself implies a kind of judgment — an admiring one. Credit for that goes to Emma Donoghue, the Irish novelist responsible for the film’s source material, and to Lenny Abrahamson, the director, whose adaptation uses only a little of the book’s child’s-eye first-person narration but succeeds in showing us the world — perfectly enclosed and then shockingly enlarged — through Jack’s transfixed, transfixing gaze.

As in the book, there’s a little more critical distance for the audience after the escape attempt, in the falling action that tries to complicate ideas of happy endings, to show us the depths of adjustment that our wider world requires. Here the story, while still interesting, becomes something more familiar, with predictable beats and complications — the pain of a broken family, the claustrophobia of ordinary life, the ins and outs of post-traumatic stress.

But while the familiarity or even predictability breaks the story’s spell a little bit, it also lets us realize just what an incredible performance Larson gives as Ma, as Joy — because there’s nothing the least bit rote or obvious about her work here. To believe the story, to have it escape the sentimental and the sensational, you have to believe that someone very ordinary, a teenage girl plucked out of a suburban idyll, could pull off what her character pulls off — the incredible feat of maternal strength, of imagination in the service of survival.

Through Larson’s work, you believe it. Her character doesn’t cut her son’s hair inside their prison, telling him that, as with Samson, it’s his Strong. Which is what she is for him, and what Larson is for the movie: a reason to enter this harrowing fairy tale, the reason to surrender to its spell.

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