Thursday, June 2, 2016

Room (Element Pictures, No Trace Camping, A24, National Film Boards of Ireland and Canada, Lionsgate, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched one of the most extraordinary recent movies either of us have seen: Room, a 2015 production of the National Film Boards of Ireland and Canada based on a 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue, a Lesbian writer from Great Britain (and her sexual orientation wouldn’t ordinarily be relevant but I suspect it had something to do with the quite jaundiced, to say the least, view of heterosexuality in this story). It’s a tale about a young woman who was kidnapped at age 19 by a man who had set up a shed in his backyard in which he could imprison her — the choice of her as a victim was purely opportunistic but the crime itself was one he had been planning for some time — and turn her into his sex slave. What makes Room especially moving and sets it apart from the way a story like this would be (and indeed has been) treated on Lifetime is that the entire tale is told from the point of view of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), five-year-old son of the victim (Brie Larson), whom he addresses merely as “Ma” through the first half of the story; Donoghue’s novel is narrated entirely from Jack’s point of view, and though the film doesn’t use a voiceover, Donoghue (who was given the job of adapting her book into a screenplay) manages nonetheless to keep Jack front and center as the main character. When I read Room (which I obtained through the late and very much lamented Quality Paperback Book Club — it’s since been absorbed into the Literary Guild, an organization I have no desire to be part of) I was struck by how good a movie it could be if it got a director who could figure out a way to keep the movie interesting when the entire first half of it is set in “Room,” Jack’s name for the enclosed shed in which he lives with his mother and which is literally the only real world he’s ever known. For the most part Room is an excellent film that fully does justice to the book, though there are two scenes that are left out of the movie, one of which goes far to explain the closeness of the relationship between Ma and Jack. At one point we’re told that before Jack was born, Ma got pregnant with another child, a girl, only her captor, “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), took over and tried to midwife the baby himself, resulting in her death, so when Jack was conceived Ma (whose name, after she’s rescued, turns out to be “Joy,” a marvelous bit of irony) concealed her pregnancy from him as long as possible and bore the baby herself without outside help. (The other scene from the book I thought should have been included was one that takes place after the rescue, in which Joy and Jack are in a shopping mall and Jack is overwhelmed by the sheer number of unfamiliar stimuli and goes into culture shock.)

The actual director, Lenny Abrahamson, does a superb job of keeping the movie interesting when it’s located entirely within Room (one gimmick in Donoghue’s novel is that Jack has been given a name for every object within Room, and he refers to them all by a capitalized word with no article in front of it: Chair Number One, Chair Number Two, Wardrobe — a portable closet in which he’s expected to hide when Nick comes into Room to have sex with Joy — Bed, Plant, Skylight, etc.) and modulating the change when Joy and Jack are finally freed from captivity at the midway point. The story begins on Jack’s fifth birthday, when Joy has finally decided that he’s old enough to understand the truth about his actual environment. Until then she’s told him that what’s inside Room is the only reality in the entire universe — everything else is Outer Space (that skylight is the only window in their environment, and at one point a leaf is blown and falls on top of it, a red leaf from a deciduous tree in autumn, which throws Jack because Ma has previously told him all leaves are green) and TV World, so what we think of as reality Jack knows only from television (their captor has allowed them a TV set, though sometimes he punishes Joy by cutting off the power to Room and shutting down not only the TV but everything else that requires electricity) and Ma has told him that this is a magic world that exists only on TV. There are a few aspects of Room the movie that don’t quite match the film I was making in my head when I read Room the book — I would have wanted the credits to be written in script made to look like a kid’s writing and I would have wanted Old Nick (a name Donoghue said in an interview she got from an old British slang term for the devil) to be kept virtually invisible, Val Lewton-style, shown only in shadow and with his presence (when he comes into Room) suggested only by dim, shadowy images and sound effects. The only time I would have wanted Nick seen full-figure and in full light was when he was arrested for the kidnapping, which in fact Abrahamson and Donoghue don’t depict in the film at all (Joy and Jack simply watch a TV news reporter announcing that there’s been an arrest in “the Newsome case”). One marvelous scene from the book that is reproduced in the film is the one when Jack, listening from Wardrobe while Nick forces himself on Joy in Bed, tries to bring order to the event (of course he has no idea what sex is or why Nick would want it) by counting the number of strokes Nick takes when he’s fucking Ma and comparing how many it takes before he finishes with how many he’s taken on previous occasions.

The first half of Room takes place entirely within Room, and Abrahamson deliberately made his job more difficult by not building breakaway walls into the Room set — he wanted Larson and Tremblay to be as closed in as the characters were (and according to an “Trivia” poster Larson deliberately isolated herself for two weeks before shooting began, never leaving her home and denying herself access to a phone or the Internet, and also living on the severely limited diet her character is subjected to in the story) — so he had to get enough angles within the cramped space to keep the movie visually interesting and using the techniques of film not to open up the story but quite the opposite: to close us in even more and give us a sense of Joy’s and Jack’s captivity that couldn’t be achieved in a stage-play version of Room. My only quarrel with Room is that the first half, when Joy and Jack are still captive, is considerably more interesting than the second half, after they get out — using a stratagem Donoghue “plants” by having Joy tell Jack the story of The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the title character escapes incarceration by pretending to be dead and having his presumed corpse thrown out of the window of the prison where he’s being held. After an attempt to fake Jack having a terrible fever so Nick will take him to the emergency room, where he can tell someone on duty what’s actually happening to them and how they live, Joy decides to tell Nick that Jack has died and he needs to open the door to Room (it’s controlled by an electronic lock with a combination and Nick forces Joy to look away every time he leaves Room so she can’t see what the combination is) to dispose of Jack’s body. There’s a marvelous scene, at once suspenseful and moving, in which Jack looks up from the bed of Nick’s pickup truck and sees the sky for the first time — the whole sky, not just what he could see from the skylight in Room — and Abrahamson keeps us guessing whether Jack will be able to get out without injuring himself and whether he’ll be able to meet another adult and convince him or her of his plight before Nick recaptures him.

Another one of Donoghue’s ironies is that, despite Joy’s memories of the outside world, her life is considerably more complicated and not always happier outside of Room than it was inside. Joy’s own parents, Nancy (Joan Allen) and Robert (William H. Macy) have split up while she’s been in captivity, and Nancy has a new partner, Leo (Tom McCamus). Not surprisingly, the relations between these three people are strained and Joy’s sudden reappearance, though on the surface an occasion for unalloyed joy, only puts more stressors on their lives. At one point Nancy tells Joy that she needs to be “nice” — and Joy furiously responds, “I’m sorry that I’m not nice anymore, but you know what? Maybe if your voice saying ‘be nice’ hadn’t been in my head, then maybe I wouldn’t have helped the guy with the fucking sick dog!” — the lure Nick had used to get her into his truck and take her captive in the first place. Later Joy takes an overdose of psychotropic medications (in the book Donoghue gave the impression it was an accident but in the movie she makes it seem like a suicide attempt) and is rushed to the hospital, where ironically she starts to recover because she’s once again in a structured environment oddly similar to the one Nick put her in. The story ends with Jack insisting to Joy that he wants to see Room again — he sees it with most of the possessions taken away by the police as evidence against Nick and Door askew, left where the police broke in to rescue Joy — and as in so much else in this fascinating story it’s not all that clear that freedom is an unalloyed joy; for all the horrors and uncertainties of his life in Room, it’s clear that Jack misses it even though, far more than for most kids, leaving Room was a major rite of passage for him. Room is a success on every level except one — the acting is first-rate throughout; Brie Larson won the Academy Award for playing Joy but to my mind the performance that stood out was Jacob Tremblay’s as the boy (looking surprisingly androgynous since his mother had no way to cut his hair — Nick wouldn’t allow scissors or any other sharp objects in Room that Joy might use to attack him — and she’s turned that into yet another morale-booster, comparing her son to the Biblical Samson and saying that his long hair gives him strength; when she O.D.’s he cuts off his own hair and gives the cuttings, tied together in a ponytail, to his mom in the hospital). He turns in the sort of acting job that I admire and which at the same time makes me wonder what the director had to put him through to get it and what long-term damage it might do to the actor as he grows up. The one element of the film I didn’t care for was the music by Stephen Rennicks; it’s the sort of treacly piano-and-strings stuff Lifetime used to use for stories like this before they started scoring them with sappy soft-rock songs instead. Charles asked me if the book was as soap-opera-ish as the movie, and I suspect it was Rennick’s glucose-ridden score, rather than the direction, writing or acting, that made it seem so.

I will give points to casting directors Robin D. Cook and Fiona Weir for finding three actors — Joan Davis, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay — that look enough alike you can believe them as three generations of the same family (the casting of people who don’t look much alike as biological relatives is one aspect of filmmaking that often bothers me) — and the producers overall for making the sort of movie you’re not supposed to be able to make anymore: a film that tells a story without either milking the tear ducts or detaching us so much from the characters we feel like researchers watching lab rats; a film that takes a story idea that almost guarantees sensationalism and achieving emotional truth instead (just compare this film to the Lifetime movie Cleveland Abduction, based on a real-life case but one whose makers used every tear-jerking gimmick in the book — as did the real abductee whose published memoir Cleveland Abduction was based on, come to that); and a film that makes us feel compassion, joy, sorrow and hatred in equal measure, one which leaves us admiring the human spirit and instinct for survival even while detesting the part of the human character that can pull off a crime like Nick’s kidnapping Joy and get away with it for so long. One thing Room has in common with Cleveland Abduction is that it ironically (a word I’m using a lot in these comments) shows how sexual kidnapping and enslavement have become democratized. The people after whom sadomasochism was named, the Marquis de Sade and the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, were landed European aristocrats who had plenty of money so they didn’t have to work and could explore their sexual shenanigans full-time. Like the real-life Cleveland story, Room showed how you don’t need that kind of money to pull off this sort of crime anymore — indeed, both Cleveland Abduction and Room have plot lines in which the kidnapper is laid off from his job and as a result conditions get even harder for his victims than they were before — not only because he no longer has as much money to support them but also because he’s more inclined to take out his economic frustrations on his victims and thereby treat them even worse than he had before. And Room has another welcome element: the presence of the marvelous Canadian actress Wendy Crewson, who appeared on a lot of Lifetime movies a decade ago (including an occasional series in which she played a police detective and An Unexpected Love, in which she’s a Lesbian who brings out a previously straight woman) but whom I hadn’t heard of in a while and was glad to see again even though her part here — an uncomprehending talk-show host who interviews Joy after she’s freed — isn’t all that important and doesn’t do justice to her formidable talents.