Friday, November 20, 2015

Room: Claustrophobic chiller

Room (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Tightly enclosed, confined-location dramas seem to have become a minor rage.

It may have started back in 2002, when Colin Farrell was trapped in Phone Booth. More recently, though, we’ve agonized while Ryan Reynolds tried to escape from an underground coffin, in Buried; and played invisible back-seat passenger while Tom Hardy spent 85 minutes in a car, in Locke.

Nothing goes to waste, in the tiny, isolated space that represents the entire universe for
Ma (Brie Larson) and young Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Thus, after gathering enough
egg shells, they naturally appoint their "home" with a decorative chain.
On a superficial level, Room would appear to belong in their company. But I actually wonder if scripter Emma Donoghue — who adapted her own best-selling 2010 novel — is familiar with Ray Bradbury’s similarly chilling “Jack-in-the-Box,” which debuted in the fantasy master’s 1947 short story collection Dark Carnival.

A few similarities are striking, but possibly coincidental. And Donoghue definitely takes her narrative into a vastly different direction, which is more in keeping with modern-day horrors. In fact, she acknowledges being inspired by the ghastly, real-life behavior of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man whose conduct was exposed in 2008. (Research at your own peril.)

Most striking, though, are the starring performances by Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay, who carry the first half of this disturbing tale almost entirely on their own. Dublin-born director Lenny Abrahamson draws quite intense performances from both, and Tremblay is particularly fine: thoroughly credible as a just-turned 5-year-old boy forced to experience the world — actually, “a” world — in a manner no child should have to endure.

A typical dawn awakens Jack (Tremblay), introduced in tight close-up as he quietly shrugs out of sheet and blanket; the camera pulls back to reveal that he shares the bed with his mother (Larson), whom he calls “Ma.” She rises, prepares breakfast, and we note the presence of the bed, a sink, a toilet, a bathtub, a wardrobe, table and chairs, and a rudimentary kitchen ... all in the same 11-by-11-foot space.

The morning progresses through various activities designed to keep Jack engaged. We take in Ma’s behavior: overly bright and cheerful, with an exaggerated enthusiasm that cannot fully conceal the weary, beaten resignation in her eyes. Details pile atop each other: the sallow complexions of these two people, the way in which Jack exhibits no curiosity about anything beyond these four walls...

...these four walls which are the extent of their entire universe.

We soon realize that Jack has been here, restricted to this room, for his entire life (and, by definition, that Ma has endured identical confinement for somewhat longer). But Jack doesn’t feel trapped; he has grown up to accept, as completely normal, that life is to be experienced in this manner.

The charade is well defined and wholly self-contained: a dual coping mechanism that has helped Ma retain her sanity, while also granting Jack as “normal” a life as she can concoct for him, under such grim circumstances. “Real” is what they have in their home, which Ma euphemistically has named “Room.” She and Jack also have given names to everything else: Chair No. 1, Chair No. 2, and so forth.

“Make-believe,” in contrast, is everything that Jack sees on their grainy, somewhat unreliable TV screen. So while Jack knows all about dogs, trees, cars and everything else, they’re not real, because he can’t interact with them; these are broadcasts from different planets. Ma has been careful to maintain that distinction, to curb his curiosity.

We’ve seen this sort of charade undertaken before, when Roberto Benigni’s Guido worked so hard to shield his young son from an appalling reality, in 1997’s Life Is Beautiful. And we wonder ... would it work?

The other obvious questions abound, of course, and this compelling little film already has gained enough publicity that the “big secret” has been outed. (The trailer, most lamentably, reveals far too much.) But there really isn’t much mystery; this is a real-world scenario, albeit a horrifying one, and so only one “answer” makes any sense.

That’s soon confirmed by the occasional appearance of “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), who enters through a heavy, keypad-locked door, to bring meager supplies.

Ma always instructs Jack to hide in the wardrobe, during Old Nick’s visits. Jack assumes that this is because he’s not allowed to witness the “magic gifts” brought by some twisted notion of Santa Claus. And so the boy remains in the dark, patiently counting the bed squeaks while having no concept of their significance ... although we certainly do.

Abrahamson and Donoghue calmly, methodically establish the parameters of what we recognize has become a harrowing, appalling and relentlessly tedious routine for Ma, even if Jack seems mostly content. But “mostly” is the operative term; with the boy’s fifth birthday upon them, Ma recognizes that he’s becoming more curious, more challenging, less accepting of the status quo.

The dynamic is about to change, which triggers the story’s mounting suspense.

The shift is tremendous, the narrative thus divided into two very distinct acts: before and after. And as mesmerizing as Tremblay’s performance is in the first half, it becomes even better — even more intense — during a second half that is uncomfortable and acutely heartbreaking for entirely different reasons.

The drama is augmented — the terrors granted an almost charming alternate reality — by a third “character” of sorts: the off-camera narration that Jack occasionally supplies. These “imaginary conversations” — we naturally wonder to whom he’s talking — emerge in a precociously chirpy “halfway language” (Donoghue’s term) that boasts a mildly clumsy blend of adult and childhood words.

The effect is endearing, for the same reason that we were similarly transfixed by little Quvenzhané Wallis’ narrative descriptions of her daily adventures, in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. We’re reminded of the amazing resilience of children: of their coping mechanisms, and their instinctive methods of survival.

Endearing, perhaps, but at the same time deeply unsettling, because we know what’s really going on here. And we can’t help wondering what will happen when...

Ah, but that would be telling.

Abrahamson and Donoghue have no trouble holding our attention throughout this two-hour film; if anything, we become more transfixed as the narrative continues. Although this premise might seem boring if casually described during a dinner party, that’s far from the case. On top of which, Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent quietly build one sequence to a level of tension that’ll drive viewers nuts; don’t be surprised if some patrons audibly beg for relief.

Tremblay may have the showier role, but Larson’s equally important contribution cannot be overstated. Jack is a fascinating product of his upbringing, but Ma has had to adjust to a new reality wholly removed from the normal life she once must have experienced. Larson is entirely believable as this tragic figure who likely endured (at least initially) through anger and stubbornness, and then later via the protective instincts of a mother tiger. We don’t doubt her for a second.

Sensitive supporting performances are turned in by Joan Allen and Amanda Brugel; I also love the quietly patient part played by Tom McCamus. (And I’ll not cite their respective roles because that, too, would be telling.)

Room is impressively gripping: by turns disturbing, endearing and, yes, even triumphant. But it isn’t casual viewing, and probably not for genteel tastes.

And it’ll definitely linger. For a long time.

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