Room begins with a mother and son’s morning routine. From exercising to taking vitamins and brushing their teeth, the film’s opening is mundane.
That choice is only the beginning of Room’s genius. By starting with these simple wake-up rituals, we are shown how normal life is for Jack. This is how his life has always been. For him there is comfort in the routine.
As the film unfolds, we realize how wrong Jack’s life is. In Jack’s eyes, the small room he lives in is the entire world. Instead of Earth, he lives in Room.
For five years Jack has lived in a tiny world that contains only him, his mother and Old Nick, who Jack considers to be half-real.
Jack’s innocent acceptance of his reality contrasts sharply with his mother’s depression. Even when her love for her son shines through, the ironically named Joy never fully escapes her depression. Her eyes often remain dead and hopeless even when her son makes her smile. Her love for her son drives her act of normalcy, but it is never more than a brief distraction from her horrific life.
But this act of normalcy is compelling enough to fool her son. She has created a nurturing, vibrant world for her child to grow up in. The film uses voiceover to allow Jack to describe his world in his innocent voice.
“There’s Room, then outer space with all the tv planets, then heaven. Plant is real, but not trees. Spiders are real, and one time the mosquito that was sucking my blood. But squirrels and dogs are just tv…monsters are too big to be real and the sea. TV people are flat and made of colors, but you and me are real. Old Nick, I don’t know if he’s real. Maybe half.”
There is no mention of the outside world until ten minutes in, when Old Nick makes his first appearance. Sean Bridgers gives a flawless performance as the captor. He doesn’t make Old Nick into an overpowering villain, but instead develops his character’s mental instability through his soft spoken words and sudden outbursts of anger.
Often we only see bits of Old Nick and hear his voice, as Jack hides in Wardrobe when Old Nick visits. But that small exposure is all Sean Bridger’s needs to establish his character. One moment he is demeaning his captive and the next, asking her for some gratitude because “Who pays the power bill, who pays for everything?” Old Nick is a terrifying image. He is the nightmare that plagues mothers when their daughters are late getting home.
But Old Nick is only a small part of Jack’s life. Jack doesn’t understand his mother’s desire for escape, who veils her desperate attempts as games. When she and her son scream at the top of their lungs Joy is hoping someone will hear them, but Jack is screaming to outer space.
“Why do the aliens never scream back?” he asks, revealing the game his mother has made their screams into. When his mother says, “I guess they still can’t hear us,” Jack reassures her by saying “We’ll do even louder, okay?”
But his innocence can’t last forever. After Old Nick threatens to kill her, Joy reaches her breaking point. Through barely concealed desperation she struggles to convince a skeptical Jack that there is a world outside the four walls of Room, and enlists his help in a plan to escape.
I won’t spoil the scene where they attempt to escape, but let me say it is one of the most intense scenes I have ever watched. Remember what it is like to be utterly terrified as a child? This scene brings that awful feeling back, yet at the same time you can feel his Joy’s utter desperation as she is forced to leave their fate in her son’s hands. The suspense is nearly unbearable. This scene made me cry even the second time I saw Room.
The soundtrack for Room perfectly heightens and enhances the emotions portrayed by the characters. In the forefront of several songs is all the innocence and wonder of Jack’s childhood, but also present are deeper undertones of the more adult flavors of desperation and depression.
The best thing about this movie is that it did not turn into “some sort of invasive crime tale,” which was one of Larson’s concerns before accepting the role of Joy. Instead of another Jaycee Dugard documentary that nabs viewers based on the promise of vicarious thrills, Larson “wants to tell universal tales,” and she manages to do so even in the incredibly specific circumstances of Room.
There is no narrow, distanced gawking at someone’s horrible life in Room. The intimate openness of Larson’s portrayal allows Joy’s story to become universal. But in the end, it isn’t Joy’s story at all. It is a coming of age for Jack, as he discovers the world.