by Andrew Collins
Room, the much-lauded film directed by Lenny Abrahamson, defies simple categorization. Technically we could call it a drama, but while it has the necessary plot points and relational tension, the sum of its parts melds into something more like a meditation. The effect is reminiscent of something by Terrence Malick, where the viewer walks away having glimpsed the world through new eyes.
Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donahue (who also wrote the screenplay) Room tells the story of a five-year-old boy named Jack (convincingly played by Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson, who won an Academy Award for the role). The audience quickly recognizes that she is the victim of a long-term abduction and rape, and he the child of that assault. But, for the boy’s sake, Ma has constructed a kind of alternate reality for the two to inhabit — a cosmology whose limits reach only to the four walls of their prison.
Jack has spent the entirety of his life in Room, a single room shed with sound proof walls and the most basic amenities – toilet, bathtub, oven, bed, closet, and chairs. The only windows to the outside world are a skylight and a television set. The way he sees it, everything is split into a dichotomy between the real world and the abstract universe of TV land.
Jack’s worldview has a certain logical coherence. Plant is real. Ma is real. Eggshell snake (a homemade toy) is real. But trees and grass and sharks and all those other things he sees flat pictures of are not real. Where would they fit? The only mediator between Jack’s world of the real – Room – and whatever else might be out there is Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who enters every night to bring food and supplies while Jack sleeps in the closet. The child is not sure if Old Nick is real, since he gets everything by magic. Maybe he’s half real.
Old Nick is a demanding, manipulative god-figure, not a kindly provider (in the “real world” we would call him a kidnapper and rapist), but Jack has no frame of reference for distinguishing between the two. This raises a peculiar dissonance. We idolize the innocence and beauty of childlike wonder, but there’s something horrifying about seeing an entrenched childish ignorance, where a boy’s sense of the cosmos is limited to 225 square feet, a skylight, and a mythology composed of daytime television. There’s something perverse about trapping a child in yet another womb after his birth.
The perversity of the film, however, is matched by a sense of wonder. Room pulls its weight on the strength of a single moment: Ma launches a desperate plan to get Jack out of the room. In the back of a pickup truck, he rolls out of a rug, looks up, and sees the sky for the first time – the sky! Suddenly the adrenaline of his escape turns into a fearsome awe.
Jack’s moment of entry into the wider world echoes Annie Dillard’s reflection in her essay Seeing. In it, Dillard quotes from the book Space and Sight by Marius von Senden, who notes the reaction of an patient who suddenly gained eyesight from a cataract operation after being blind from birth: “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.”
“Darkness appalls and light dazzles,” Dillard writes, “the scrap of visible light that doesn’t hurt my eyes hurts my brain. What I see sets me swaying. Size and distance and the sudden swelling of meanings confuse me, bowl me over.”
Room invites us to see the world for the first time again, with all of its trauma and beauty. The world is so big, Ma cries. Won’t you believe that the world stretches out way beyond Room? Won’t you step out and see? Jack’s first glimpse of the sky is enough to bring one to tears. Look at the trees! Look at all the new faces. Look at room after room after room behind all those walls. The world beckons to him: Come child, see that I am full of many rooms and bright lights and toys and dogs and hamburgers and ringing phones and a great blue sky that goes on and on until it turns into space without end.
At the end of the film Jack and Ma return to room for one last look at their home. Jack remarks that somebody must have “shrinked it,” it’s so small. Plant is dead. The mattress and drawings and makeshift toys are gone, confiscated as evidence. It’s not Room anymore, Jack remarks. It’s not Room because the door is gone. And indeed he is right. It’s not Room without the door. When Jack left through the door, the womb-like universe of Room was shattered into a million pieces, never to be reentered. The great, wide world cannot be unseen.