As per Plato’s “allegory of the cave,” perception can be a prison or an escape. In her novel Room, Emma Donoghue refashioned Plato’s allegory as a story of a boy born into captivity who knows nothing better or worse until, inevitably, the scales fall from his eyes. Now, Donoghue has adapted her novel into a screenplay, the new medium allowing for a powerful dramatic treatment of differing perceptions and of the profound movements enabled by a heady mix of co-dependence and unconditional love.
Room opens seven years into the captivity of “Ma” (Brie Larson), who was kidnapped as a teenager and shut into a domestic prison by a deranged rapist she calls “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Two years into her indefinite prison sentence, Old Nick impregnated his captive, giving Ma a companion in Jack. Now five years old, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) understands only what his mother has told him about his existence: that their cramped hovel, a.k.a. “Room,” is the world entire. As Samuel Butler once wrote, “Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances,” and indeed Jack sees his tiny universe in the fabulist terms of a child’s fable (like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the cruelly apt centerpiece of blonde wanderer Ma’s limited library). As if he’s in Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Jack merrily personifies the “trappings” of his existence: the made-up world of “TV” (“But me and you are real,” he affirms to Ma), “Sink,” “Door.”
And when Old Nick punches a code and walks through Door every night, fiercely protective Ma banishes Jack to a wardrobe, where his view through slats becomes yet more limited, and he counts the thrusts of sexual assault instead of sheep. Pushed to what we can only assume is a new, and not her first, breaking point, Ma sets her sights on escape and thus begins, as gently as she can, to clue Jack into reality. Scared and chastened, Jack argues, “I want a different story!” “No!” Ma replies. “This is the story that you get!” And though few can know the extremity of this specific situation and the extent to which it frays nerves, many can relate to an unhappy reality and a powerful yearning to transcend it.
Director Lenny Abrahamson does a fine job of cradling this delicate story and its inherent intensity rather than squeezing it for every ounce of exploitative emotion: the understated approach allows Room to be, above all, a performance piece for its remarkable central duo. Larson doesn’t neglect, or overplay, a single emotional beat (in her most powerful moment, Larson must consider the possibility that her own need may have allowed her to mistake selfishness for love). Meanwhile, Tremblay channels not only the obvious childhood essentials of curiosity and mood swings, but the less obvious ones of philosophical searching and raw emotional depth. Together, they make the most potent pairing on screen this year. (In scenes that show the world outside Room, Joan Allen heartbreakingly puts the story into relief as Ma’s also wounded, also deeply loving mother.)
Room raises fascinating existential questions about the worlds we create and choose to believe in, and the identities that we adaptively form (Jack’s long hair, for example, serving as a symbol of identity open to differing gender interpretations), while also examining how children process trauma and touching on the unfathomable fear that fosters a perhaps irrational captive hopelessness. Room is hardly perfect, with its insistence on bounce-back childishness belying a larger truth of post-traumatic life, but just try to forget it. For two hours, Larson and Tremblay make their struggles our struggles, Ma and Jack’s perceptions challenging our own.
Lionsgate opens up Room for home video in a Blu-ray + Digital HD special edition. The HD transfer looks about as good as can be expected: though it does struggle a bit with crush, shadow detail, and contrast in the many low-light scenes, elsewhere detail of the digital-to-digital transfer proves outstanding, and the color, while often muted, appears true to the source. In telling its intimate story, Room doesn't put too many tough demands on the Blu-ray's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Still, the mix is pleasing, with subtle, muffled ambience to heighten anxiety in the film's first half, and a later breakthrough, if brief, to more robust sounds. Mostly, this mix is about dialogue and music, which are nicely balanced and full-sounding, with dialogue always crisp and never challenged by the ambience or score.
Bonus features include an audio commentary with director Lenny Abrahamson, cinematographer Danny Cohen, editor Nathan Nugent and production designer Ethan Tobman that focuses on the adaptation of novel to film, work with the actors, and especially realizing the story in technical terms.
"Making Room" (12:03, HD) is an EPK-style featurette with a bit of footage interspersed with talking heads.
"11 x 11" (9:06, HD) takes a similar tack, just with a focus on the subject of the film's "room" setting.
"Recreating Room" (4:23, HD) takes a quick look at a promotional recreation of the set for a special screening of the film.
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