On his fifth birthday, optimistic little Jack (Jacob Tremblay) goes through the routines of eating breakfast, brushing his teeth, and exercising. And as a special treat, his mother, whom he calls simply Ma (Brie Larson), helps him bake a birthday cake – though there are no candles available. These seemingly normal activities all take place in the confines of a small room, filled with little more than a bed, a sink, a tub, a wardrobe, a toilet, and a stove.
Most nights, a man called “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) visits the room to have sex with Ma. But Jack doesn’t understand this custom, instead letting his imagination dream up a world of wonderment, all existing neatly in the boundaries of the room – where a mouse joyfully nibbles on some scraps and where his imaginary dog Lucky can frolic. In Jack’s mind, the only reality is inside the room, and everything on the other side of the wall is most certainly outer space. After one particularly traumatizing night, when Jack wanders out of his hiding spot to observe the sleeping adults and is frightened by both Nick and an instance of physical violence against Ma, the fatigued woman realizes that she must coach the young boy into aiding with an escape plan to finally rid them of the restrictive imprisonment of the room.
At first, “Room” is something of a mystery, harboring dark revelations that might not be entirely evident from the basic setup. To protect her son, Ma creates a series of lies about the outside world – but in a moment of desperation and the realization of future obstacles, she begins to reveal some staggering truths. Though details are steadily disclosed, a good portion of the film is shown through the perspective of the child, who imparts an obvious innocence and an ignorance that complicate the strangeness of their durance. While soundproofing foam, the existence of a single window (a skylight), and a keypad on the door are telltale signs of chilling immurement, there’s a certain sad unawareness from the youth’s viewpoint that makes the situation both scarier and ambiguous.
Like “Life is Beautiful,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” or “Tideland,” which all use adolescent imagination to counter the effects of an unthinkably repugnant reality, “Room” sets about attempting to lessen the horrors through diverting make-believe asides. But it never gets far enough, instead switching over to an incredibly suspenseful escape (involving a plan that the boy is ultimately just too young to competently assist with) and an equally harrowing rescue. Anxiety builds quite cinematically as so many things could go wrong – or worse, result in further elements of permanent unknowing. But rather than embracing this nerve-wracking segment of their lives, “Room” takes a stab at more encompassing closure, resulting in a slightly slowed pace and a few notes at a message film (which threatens to negate much of the impact, as if this were merely an elongated “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episode).
What could have been an utterly thrilling 90-minute exercise in purposeful introductions and terrifying solutions soon morphs into a more bloated story of rehabilitation, reintegration, and coping with blame and guilt. The focus on the aftermath starts to dilute the potency of the initial premise and its hair-raising unraveling. Fortunately, “Room” utilizes two exceptional actors who, practically by themselves, build a two-hour character study that tackles the full spectrum of tormenting captivity and agonizing recovery in a highly emotional, thought-provoking drama.