Review: Room

Alexander Atienza - March 2, 2016

As seven-year-old Jack is carried out of the industrial garden shed he affectionately calls Room, viewers realize how small it is in the film's first wide angle shot. One might drive past Room on any suburban street without any inkling that both Jack and his mother, Joy, are held as prisoners in the tiny shed. After Old Nick, the protagonists' captor, loads him into the back of his pickup truck, Jack, assumed to be dead, successfully disentangles himself from the carpet and sees the sky for the first time.

There are many 'firsts' in this film, but vacillating between subjective and objective points of view diminishes their impact, since it deprives viewers of any surprise. Our curiosity is already satisfied once the exterior is revealed, leaving little room for the viewer to experience Jack's development. This indecisiveness is present throughout the film in several respects. Room could have made two competent films, the first ending after Jack and his mother escape. As it is, Room is divided between an escape narrative and a psychological drama without a thesis to unify the two, leaving one unsure whether the film is about coping under limited means or the shock of returning to the real world.

We are not entirely sure of the extent of their captor's abuse. Moments one would imagine feel like they take forever, such as the first appearance of Old Nick occupy as much screen time as a scene in which Joy bakes a cake. When Jack climbs out of the truck and runs to a stranger for help, Nick drives away, having given up catching him. The villain is more pitiable than genuinely threatening, an interesting detail that defeats the principal conceits of the film. A more allegorical reading might mitigate plot holes and encourage suspension of disbelief, but if Room is an updated Allegory of the Cave, exposition regarding the protagonists' capture is unnecessary, since the message takes precedence over context. The film awkwardly withholds revealing the backstory until moments right before the escape. If internal conflict is at the center of Room and not physical survival, less time should have been spent on the logistics of escaping and more on the protagonists' lives after they escape. The second half tries to compensate for this asymmetry by showing dramatic changes in the mother's life, but we do not see much of it because they are shown from the child's perspective. Proponents of the film cite the tension created by its oddly bifurcated structure as a sign of its complexity. However, while the film's sobering second half is more realistic, going from optimistic to pessimistic to optimistic affirms the film's initial optimism.

Furthermore, the film's lack of focus is aggravated by a script that tries hard to be clever. During an impassioned argument, Joy's mother optimistically says to her, "when I see you, I will see my daughter." At another point, when TV reporter asks Joy whether she will reveal to her son his biological relationship to their captor, she pointedly quips, "That is not a relationship." Joy's parenting comes under scrutiny when the reporter persists in questioning her decision maintain an illusion of normalcy inside Room, but this problem never resurfaces. Ultimately, Room is a compromise between two stories: one in which we are confronted with superhuman cruelty, another in which we are imprisoned by our own shortcomings. Either the world is mind-blowing and we should be grateful for it, or the world is actually Room and there is more to see. The former takes an exceptional experience and makes it vivid, and the latter tells an allegory and makes a case for its universality. Room sits uneasily between the two, resurrecting the age-old dilemma of choosing between complete liberty and self-mastery. These stories have different, mutually exclusive implications about what it means to survive, and without the clarity of purpose necessary to explore them, Room makes a compelling argument for neither.

Alexander Atienza

Alexander Atienza is a junior studying cognitive science. Raised in Maryland and educated in Washington, DC, Alex is the Marketing Director for PCI. In addition to the Penn Cinema Initiative, Alex is also a board member of the Penn Philippine Association and the Polybian Society, Penn’s largest nonpartisan intellectual society. He enjoys creative writing between classes, dinner, and board meetings. Alex’s interests include aesthetics, filmmaking, and philosophy of mind, and his favorite films include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Rushmore. You may find him wandering around campus with his camera or a book on film theory.