Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 20, 2015 4:14 pm 
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The comfort of the abyss

Instead of approaching a kind of nihilistic absurdity, the strange punk avant-garde band of Frank, in which the talented Michael Fassbender never emerged from inside the self-conscious conceptual prison of a giant balloon mask, this time the Irish director Abrahmanson (formerly Leonard, now gone Hollywood-chummy as "Lenny") has turned his taste for edge in a more emotionally challenging, socially significant direction by filming Emma Donoghue's novel (in her own effectively simplified and telescoped script adaptation) about a real prison. Room is about a woman kept as a sex slave by a demented psychopath for seven years, trying to maintain some semblance of sanity and normalcy for her little boy born in captivity while both are confined to a ten-by-ten-foot space. Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the boy, who celebrates his fifth birthday in the opening sequence, is the linchpin of the action. Events are shown from his point of view, and his periodic voiceover, describing a hermetic world, frames the tale. Their escape is engineered through him. Arguably there is more emotional validity than verisimilitude to Room, but it's an interesting and emotionally powerful story.

The first half is intriguing, grimy, vivid, appalling, touching, and increasingly nerve-wracking. Ma (Brie Larson) has been conditioning Jack to believe that their place of confinement, which she has dubbed "room," a garden shed supplied with toilet, water, hot plate, electricity, and TV, is the world. But now she gradually teaches him the truth and trains him to carry out a scheme to escape.

This story is based on events that we know occur, but the details are invented, and allowing for the fact that truth is stranger than fiction, some willing suspension of disbelief is required. Wisely, and no doubt plausibly, the captor, whom Ma and Jack refer to as "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers) is a bland and, since this is meant to dramatize Jack's point of view, rather vague figure. Ma seeks to keep him out of Jack's sight by shutting Jack in a wardrobe to sleep before "Old Nick" comes for his nightly visits. But there turn out to be slats in the door through which Jack glimpses "Old Nick" and may vaguely perceive what goes on. The line between Jack's vague perception of what's going on and a certain vagueness in how the story's worked out is not always clear.

The way Ma eventually coerces and persuades Jack to be the engine of their escape is both horrific and brave. You may consider its success either lucky or implausible. All this works as far as it does because of the claustrophobic intensity of the appalling situation the filmmakers and the actors evoke. After the time we've spent with Ma, Jack, and momentarily "Old Nick" in "room," the huge room in a hospital where Jack and Ma wake up has all the unreality and wonder Jack feels as she tells him this too is the world, and they're just in another part of it, and there are many more, and wondrous, parts. Everything is full of magic and expectation. Then they're taken to Ma's mom's house, where she now lives not with Ma's dad but a nondescript, curly-haired man named "Leo" (Tom McCamus), whose value for Jack turns out to be one: he has a dog.

The movie's problem is holding our interest with such trivialities after the escape, when the tension dissipates and the action, so intensely focused at first, begins to scatter in too many unplanned directions. Here, Abrahamson begins showing off some of the seemingly endless capacity for boring the audience that he displayed so lavishly in Frank. The story's powerful core, the all-encompassing relationship between Jack and Ma, gets fuzzy as they drift apart from each other at her mother's house and Ma herself begins to fall apart without the need to survive and protect her son to hold her together. This is a classic paradox -- that freedom is harder to handle than confinement -- but the film isn't composed and detached enough to draw out its ironies. Secondary characters such as Ma's neurotic, alienated father (an overwrought, tiresome William H. Macy) suck air out of already airless scenes; it's awful. And here with hospital personnel, therapists, journalists and TV interviewers the movie gets self-conscious and awkward in its point-making. We get it: middle class suburban American life is a prison too; the ordinary world can be confining and oppressive. Prison can be seductive, a safe certainty to return to. In confinement, Jack's and Ma's love was pure, the only thing. But so what? The real, deep problems of lingering psychological trauma to be faced in the aftermath are actually barely broached.

Luckily, as Ma's mom, Joan Allen is low-keyed and authentic, like Larson, and her scenes with the boy after Ma has had a nervous breakdown and gone to a clinic are natural and lovely. Room almost redeems itself in a final sequence where Ma and Jack, at Jack's request, go back and revisit "room," which has been dismantled and now appears "shrinked" to Jack. The possibility of normalcy for both of them appears, and the movie ends on a hopeful but still realistic note. Abrahamson gets points for finding this challenging topic and not hamming it up; for collaborating effectively with the novel's author; and for assembling a cast including the excellent young Tremblay, the selfless, quietly believable Larson, and Joan Allen. There are heartbreaking, disarmingly real moments between Tremblay and Larson, and some magic ones between Allen and the boy, when she cuts his long hair. Some of that is hardly acting. But Tremblay is an actor, and when he says, "I love you, Grandma," that's acting. Isn't it?

Room, 118 mins, debuted at Telluride Sept. 2015; also Toronto, Vancouver, London. Limited US theatrical release 16 Oct. 2015; wider, 25 Nov.; UK 15 Jan. 2016.

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