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Room : A Review



Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson with screenplay by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel of the same name), is the story of Joy, a young woman abducted and held in a small room by a stranger who routinely rapes her, and Jack, her five year old son who was conceived as a result of these rapes and has never known any life outside of the room they call home. The film stars Brie Larson as Joy and Jacob Tremblay as Jack. Room has received four Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress.

Room is one half of a truly brilliant film. Room has some extraordinary elements to it, but is burdened by a structural flaw that undermines its potent dramatic power. What is the flaw? Well, the first half of the film, where we are trapped with Joy and Jack in the room is so well done, so full of genuine humanity and palpable tension that it is absolutely mesmerizing. Sadly, the film makes a dreadful mistake by moving away from and releasing the dramatic tension of Joy and Jack's captivity, and instead follows them as they struggle to reintegrate back into the real world. That decision completely dissipates the dramatic tension that was so compelling while Joy and Jack were imprisoned. We are instead left with a second half of the film that is muddled and vague.

I have not read the book the film is based on, but I suspect the film is faithful to it, as the author is the screenwriter, but film is not literature. I think it was Marlon Brando who once said, "It's moving pictures, not moving words". As always, Brando is right. The structure of a story for a book is vastly different than that for a film. Books have a different pace, rhythm, and perspective. Books use words, film uses visuals. The first half of Room is a brilliant film, the second half feels like a book put to pictures.

In the first half, the film is visually vibrant and dramatically focused. For instance, the sequence where Jack escapes and struggles to maintain his focus in the vast, frightening and glorious new world outside the room, is unquestionably magic. It is as heart pounding a sequence as any in film this year. Part of what makes Jack's escape and car ride so compelling is that he doesn't have to say much. We also get to see this wondrous new world for the first time through his eyes. The rest of the film never lives up to that staggering sequence. The drama gets diluted from that moment onward. The story of Joy and Jack adjusting to life after the room lacks focus and is nowhere near as imperative as their life in confinement and whether they will survive.

Director Lenny Abrahamson also directed last years Frank, which, like Room, was also an uneven film that suffered from a lack of focus. Like Frank, Room, can't decide what exactly it wants to be. Since it can't have one focal point, it ends up trying to do too much. A general rule in filmmaking is "less is more". Room should have been an hour and ten minutes of the audience being stuck in the room with Joy and Jack. The films final ten minutes should have been Jack's pulse-pounding escape, which is a masterpiece of filmmaking on Abrahamson's part. You could maybe extend it to follow Jack as he tries to help the police decipher his five year old ramblings and backtrack to save Joy, which is another great sequence in the film. An entire film of Joy and Jack struggling to survive and stay sane in that room, the claustrophobic drama of that, would have even heightened the already unimaginable excitement of Jack's climactic escape. I believe if Room had followed that path, it would have been the best film of the year…but it didn't….and it wasn't.

Brie Larson is a phenomenal actress and her work in Room is superb. Larson's Joy is a deeply wounded soul, but it doesn't translate into making her fragile or delicate, but rather gives her a formidable power and spiritual ferocity. Joy is genuine, grounded, likable and yet, like all of us, oh-so human and flawed which makes her especially enthralling. What makes Larson's work so good is that it shows us a real person trying to make the best of an impossible situation. Larson's artistic courage is on full display as she is able to exquisitely convey the mental and emotional torment of being held prisoner. Larson's performance, like the film, does struggle in the second half to maintain it's early radiant brilliance, but that has more to do with a lack of narrative focus rather than her obvious command of craft and skill.

Brie Larson is the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards this year. She certainly has earned it if she does indeed win. She has a great career ahead of her if she can avoid the pitfalls that have sidetracked so many other talented young actors. The pressure to satiate the ravenous greed of the industry can often suffocate the creative impulses of many artists, even after they win an Oscar. I look forward to seeing the talent and skill of Brie Larson blossom and prosper in the years to come, let's hope Hollywood doesn't smother her genius in the crib.

Speaking of cribs, Jacob Tremblay is the young actor who plays five year old Jack. Tremblay was eight when he shot Room. He is utterly fantastic in the film. Jack is, like all five year olds, maddening, frustrating and absolutely amazing. The film thrives when it shows us Jack's perspective and lets us into his world. The old Hollywood maxim says to never work with animals or kids…but you can throw that saying out in Tremblay's case as he his work in Room is sublime. 

As for the rest of the cast, there are some big names but they do subpar work in the film's flawed second half. Joan Allen plays Joy's mother, and the part is terribly underwritten and her performance is underwhelming. William H. Macy is uncharacteristically dreadful as Joy's estranged father. Both of these performances suffer from the lack of focus that derails the film itself in its second half.

In conclusion, Room's impeccable first half is as good as it gets, but once the dramatic tension is dissipated, the story loses all momentum in its second half and staggers to its anti-climactic finish. The film is worth seeing for Brie Larson's and Jacob Tremblay's performances alone, but one can't help but feel disappointed that the film didn't live up to the heightened expectations created by its first half. So, see Room on Netflix or cable, but there is no need to spend your hard-earned money going to see it in the theatre.