On Sunday, February 28, the Academy will honor the previous year in cinema with a slew of awards, waiting until the end of the night to bestow Best Picture on one of eight nominees. Leading up to the ceremony, we’re posting a piece a day on each of these major Oscar contenders.
Discussions of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room rightly tend to focus on its emotional impact. It’s the kind of film that inspires a good, cleansing cry, leaving viewers both drained and uplifted walking out of the theater (and dialing up Mom before they reach the parking garage). In some ways—and this is not a value judgement—it’s the opposite of Mad Max: Fury Road; an intimate, unassuming movie emphasizing performance over spectacle. But at the same time, it’s a filmmaking trick that gives the film its profound empathy.
On paper, Room is unbelievably bleak. A teenage girl is kidnapped and kept in confinement for seven years, where she is raped repeatedly and forced to bear a child. She and her son are only able to escape by pretending the child is dead, and their freedom is only the beginning of their struggle. Author (and eventual screenwriter) Emma Donoghue has said that she based the story partially on the case of Joseph Fritzl, an Austrian man who held his own daughter—and her seven children—captive under similar circumstances for 24 years. Some of the details are the same: Fritzl, like the kidnapper in Room, kept his daughter in a tiny room accessible via a security code that only he knew. And his crime was exposed when Elisabeth Fritzl convinced her father to take one of their children to the hospital; unbeknownst to him, the girl had an SOS note in her pocket, a tactic that Brie Larson’s Ma tries in the film.
Room also takes place in Ohio, a fact that remains unstated in the script but is clearly revealed in a shot of a license plate toward the end of the film. That’s a subtle nod to another famous kidnapping case, where former bus driver Ariel Castro kept three young women captive in his home in suburban Cleveland, Ohio for more than a decade. This type of crime has happened a handful of times since the ’70s, with different combinations of people and circumstances. But one sad near-constant is the presence of children, born of rape and kept in captivity with their mothers.
Media coverage of these real-life events tend to lean on the sensationalist side. The Fritzl case even inspired a 2010 Lifetime movie, Confined, that combines the story with some good old-fashioned Lifetime-style women’s intuition and stars Emma Caulfield (a.k.a. Anya from Buffy) and Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Hogan as the dad who locks up his daughter in a hole in the wall. The 2011 film Michael, also cobbled together from stories of various real-life Austrian kidnappings, tells a similar story from the perspective of the offender. The result, critics agree, is unnerving.
Room, on the other hand, makes one key change that completely alters the tone: It’s told from the perspective of the child, Jack, played by then 7-year-old Jacob Tremblay. This is established in the very first shots of the film, closeups of the everyday objects that make up Jack’s world. In reality, “Room” itself is a prison measuring barely 10 feet on each side. But to Jack, it’s an endlessly malleable space full of friends—every object in the room, even the toilet, has its own name, gender, and personality. They, as well as Jack and Ma, are real. Beyond that, there’s some confusion: There’s outer space, with the various “TV planets,” each its own self-contained “Room.” Then there’s heaven, although no one knows exactly where it is. Using this language, Abrahamson contains our understanding of the world of the film inside Jack’s understanding of events, utilizing voice-over from Tremblay to further put us inside his head.
This language—invented by Ma as a way to protect Jack—brings subtlety to what otherwise would be salacious details. A daily ritual of screaming for help is explained away as an attempt to get the attention of “aliens,” and Ma’s occasional “gone days,” where she’s too depressed to get out of bed, are discussed in the same casual tone as what’s on TV. And because Ma forbids Jack to interact with him, we barely see, or know anything about, their captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Making the perpetrator into an abstract figure makes him incidental to the story; it’s the opposite of serial-killer culture, which fetishizes criminals by poring over their every action and inclination. The ugly reality of Jack’s parentage, something wholly inappropriate to discuss with a 5-year-old, is similarly glossed over: It’s never explicitly stated why Robert (William H. Macy), Ma’s father, refuses to look Jack in the eye, leaving viewers to puzzle out the meaning of the gesture—and the horror behind it—themselves.
Room is peppered with POV shots from Jack’s perspective, generally employed during moments of confusion or fear. We first see Old Nick through the slats of a closet door, for example, and a scene where Dr. Mittal (Cas Anvar) explains the procedures for acclimating Jack to the outside world is punctuated with a shot from Jack’s POV of the unfamiliar new presence handing Ma an equally unfamiliar jar of pills. The first shot of the film outside of “Room” is from Jack’s perspective, in fact, although we quickly cut to a wide shot of Old Nick carrying him through his backyard. (Many shots of the outside world are shot wide with a deep focus, contrasted with the intimate scenes between Jack and Ma in “Room.” Tellingly, the scene where she explains that she’s been lying to him is shot in closeup with the background out of focus, showing how small his world really is.)
Jack is present for virtually every important emotional moment in the film, even those that don’t directly involve him: When Ma tearfully reunites with her parents, or when she gives an interview on her captivity, the camera pans over to Jack, watching from the sidelines. This would seem to sideline Ma’s trauma—indeed, we don’t hear her real name until midway through the film, and at her lowest moment, she disappears from sight. But because we see Ma through Jack’s eyes, she’s transformed from an object of pity to a pillar of strength. Her strength—lying to her son to make his life bearable, shouldering the reality of their situation entirely on her own—may be invisible, but it is there. And while Jack might not understand it, viewers do, through inference and subtle exposition.
Toward the end of Room, Ma apologizes to Jack for being a bad mother, a statement he shrugs off in order to go play outside. In this moment, we understand the profound nature of what she has done, because while the world may see her as a victim, it’s because of her that he will be okay. She is his Atlas, except without her the sky would not fall. It wouldn’t even exist.