There are movies that deal with painful, challenging material and then there are movies that are simply punishing. “Room” is among the latter, a well crafted and acted film with material so repellent, I hope to never sit through it again.
We meet a young mother (Brie Larson) and her nine year old son (Jacob Tremblay), who live in a claustrophobic home, play together and struggle to keep each other merry. We gradually learn that the mother has been abducted from her childhood home and locked for years in a tool shed by her kidnapper. The creep who keeps her there rapes her every night and her son is the result. The little boy has his own corner of the world he calls “room” (it is the only world he knows) and hides while the man he’s told is “Old Nick” comes and abuses his mother night after night. Yuck.
Look, I know there many readers who found the Emma Donoghue novel this is based to be an amazing work of fiction. I’ve also been made aware of dozens of film critics, journalists and devoted film buffs who caught this movie during its run as a film festival favorite and adore it. I’m glad they all love this movie but count me out. No amount of whimsy, presenting the story from the boy’s skewed point of view, helped make this any less grueling.
During the first act, I couldn’t wait for the movie to end. The second and third act have a much different problem. Forgive me for a few minor spoilers: there is an escape and a period of rehabilitation for the boy and his mother. I never believed any of it.
The boy has been psychologically damaged to a horrific degree during his childhood in “room” and we see his dutch-angled point of view while doctors and family members coax conversation from him. After a bit of this, we see the boy and his mom laughing over a meal at a fast food restaurant. How is this possible? A few days ago, the kid was talking to his furniture! Not since Harrison Ford’s gunshot to the temple recovery in “Regarding Henry” has rehabilitation seemed so rushed and unlikely (though that was a movie I’d happily revisit).
The previous work by director Leonard Abrahamson was “Frank,” in which Michael Fassbender wore a giant mask on his head for the duration of the film. I respect the artistic choices Abrahamson made here and he clearly respects this story and the characters. Yet, I don’t think the material, noble intentions and all, really works or that it creates an allegory for how much this mother loves her son and vice versa. This is such an ugly story, I’m not sure any director could make it work. A far harsher comparison is Terry Gilliam’s little seen “Tideland,” in which a little girl’s fairy tale perspective protects everyone but the audience from the horrors of her tragic life. I applauded Gilliam’s efforts and his visionary take on an unworkable premise but that movie, like “Room,” is so grotesque, only adventurous filmgoers should consider seeing it.
Larson sometimes works the material too hard but Tremblay’s performance is amazing. It was odd to see William H. Macy given so little to do and make so little an impression. The compassion in the film’s second half helps offset the grueling set up and scenes of imprisonment. Yet, I didn’t want to witness the sick abuse the boy and his mother undergo and, unfortunately, I couldn’t swallow the too-easy therapy that cures them of the “room.” Weeks later, I’m still in need of some post-“Room” therapy myself.