Oh, Jack. Everything has two sides.
Room is a movie that will always stay with me.
Its premise alone is dark and hauntingly believable: a teenager is kidnapped, held captive within a garden shed, and bears the child of her captor. Her son knows no world outside the shed, outside of what they call Room.
Even under the circumstances, we see the woman, Ma, and her son Jack operate in their sense of order. He says hello to all their furniture, watches TV, as she cooks, cleans, and tells stories to keep up with his imagination. He celebrates his fifth birthday and she makes him a miniature cake. The only link to the outside world is their captor, “Old Nick,” who brings them a “Sunday treat” of groceries and durable goods, and spends the night with Ma.
After two failed attempts, Ma comes up with a plan for escape – training Jack endlessly to prepare for it. The idea is dangerous, and comes with no guarantees, but it’s a risk Ma is willing to take. She rolls Jack up into their dirty carpet, tells Old Nick he is dead, and begs him to bury her son – having told Jack to roll out of the rug and escape just as Old Nick starts hauling the “corpse” away on his truck.
The film’s greatest scene, by a long shot, is this escape. Jack struggles, but succeeds in unrolling himself from the rug in Old Nick’s flatbed. We see the outside world as Jack sees it: our first blue skies after spending all of the prior scenes within that garden shed. The wind blows through his unkempt hair, and he gazes upon houses, cars, people – all for the first time.
Amplified by the powerful guitars of the song “The Mighty Rio Grande” by This Will Destroy You, this scene is film-making at some of its finest. So many movies follow a series of arcs of tension-release, tension-release, while Room held and maintained this tension visually, through placing us along with the victims in a confined space, as well as through its narrative building up to an eventual escape, before opening up into a glorious climax. A woman next to me in the theater was sobbing uncontrollably, and I can’t pretend I wasn’t close to it.
From here, unfortunately, the film wobbles into iffier terrain. Yes, Jack is found by the police who later free Ma, returning them to her parents. Once returning home, Ma is cold and distant to her family; Jack is nostalgic and homesick for Room – the only home he’s ever had. The repercussions of their ordeal come to the forefront, as they undoubtedly would in real life; but the characters we’d come to so dearly empathize with pivot to such un-likability.
The journey from Room to World is so fulling and culminates in a terrifically satisfying conclusion; while World and beyond deflates that dreamlike optimism into a dark reality. From a narrative perspective, it’s fair that the story addresses life before and after the escape, and examines the lingering effects of such a terrible experience. There are two sides to each wall. But the care and meaning that so dominated the first half of the film seems to be missing in the second.
While Room trails off in its third act and loses the spark that makes the bulk of the film so special, at its best it is nothing short of remarkable storytelling. This is not the best picture of the year, but is certainly a worthy contender.