I avoided Lenny Abrahamson and Emily Donoghue‘s Room during the Telluride Film Festival for understandable reasons. Thoughts of confinement and claustrophobia have always unsettled me, and who, really, would want to submit to a film that’s essentially about imprisonment? Mine, I mean. I was locked inside Room for two hours last night as I sat in my Princess of Wales orchestra seat, and the sputtering rage I felt when it finally ended was considerable. (Just ask Coming Soon‘s Ed Douglas — I ranted his ear off as we walked over to the Soho House after-party.)
Room, which Donoghue adapted from her own 2011 novel, is essentially a mother-love film about nurturing a young child (the very young and quite good Jacob Tremblay) through years of grotesque imprisonment imposed by the biological dad, and about the child’s gradual recovery after he and his mom (Brie Larson) have managed an escape.
Last night a New York-based female journalist told me and another columnist that she “really loved” Room. There are many sensitive souls out there who have felt and will feel the same way. But I’m telling you straight and true that it was hell for me. The story sucks and the emotional currents, while strong, don’t go anywhere. They just fret and shudder and play out in a vacuum. I for one felt like a dog in an airless box. It was agony.
Room is about confinement, confinement and more confinement. Okay, with a nicely delivered spiritual uplift moment at the very end. But the feeling of physical and psychological entrapment is nothing short of lethal. I ask again — who would want to sit through something like this? To what end? I’ve got my stress levels and deadlines and the weight of the world on my shoulders and you want me to sit through a movie like Room on top of everything else?
Confinement situation #1 involves a working-class fiend named Old Nick having imprisoned twentysomething Ma (Larson) and five-year-old Jack (Tremblay) in an eight-by-eight-foot shed for seven years. This situation, which is ghastly and yet boring, occupies the first 50 or 55 minutes. Then they escape (the most interesting part of the film) and then comes confinement situation #2 in a hospital, and then confinement situation #3 in the leafy suburban home of Larson’s mother (Joan Allen) and her second husband Leo (Tom McCamus) in which various resentments eventually erupt. And it goes on and on like this. And on and on. The rooms change but the caged atmosphere persists.
Anthony Perkins‘ Norman Bates would understand Room very well: “We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and we can never get out,” he said during Psycho‘s first act. “We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Trust me — except for the escape sequence (which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you break it down) and the nice little epiphany at the end Room never budges. A lot of scratching and clawing and screaming all through it, and all so that little Jack can say farewell to the eight-by-eight cell at the very end — “Goodbye, sink…goodbye, bed…goodbye, closet,” etc.
Old Nick was so enraged at his life and limitations that he’s taken it out on poor Ma and Jack. Ma is hugely pissed at her weak dad (William H. Macy) who refuses to even look at poor little Jack. Jack is stuck in his five-year-old head until he grows out of it. Ma is stuck in her head. The movie is stuck in this wintry suburban environment with leafless trees everywhere. And you, Jeffrey Wells, are stuck in this film, this mood pocket, this hell pit from which there can be no escape until it ends.
Yes, I had to tough it out, but I felt emptier when Room ended than when it began. Because with the exception of the escape sequence and the nice ending nobody does anything. Room is all about Ma and Jack reacting to a series of unpleasant oppressions with shocked expressions and huddled body postures and rage and a suicide attempt and endless sitting around and the playing of games and a lot of hugging and huddling. There’s more huddling in this thing that in the entire life of Reginald Hudlin.
The urge to duck out and check my cell-phone messages every 15 or 20 minutes was very strong. But I hung tough. I felt I had to stay.
I wanted to raise my hand and ask Abrahamson a question like I was in a film class: “Is this movie going to do anything or what? Is anybody going to do anything? Or am I just going sit here and wait until it’s over? And what is this thing you seem to have about confinement and creepy obsessions? The titular character in your last film, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, was a singer who walked around with his head inside a mask, and now you’ve made a film about a mother and a son trapped in rooms of varying sizes.”
Lenny Abrahamson is now on HE’s shit list. Life is full of wonder and intrigue and occasional moments of satori and levitation, and I really, really don’t need another Abrahamson film in my head. I’m not saying I’m going to absolutely avoid his efforts in the future, but I’ll be giving serious thought to sidestepping them if at all possible. Seriously, fuck this guy.
I have two sons. I’ve been through all the panging emotions of parenthood…all of it. I know all about the urge to protect small kids at all costs. So don’t try that “oh, you don’t understand the profound bond between mothers and sons” argument.
Repeating: Donoghue may or may not have admitted that Room was largely inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian monster who kept his daughter confined in a cellar for 24 years (’84 to ’08) and fathered seven children with her, but it almost certainly was.