Room is more than the title of one of the year’s most powerful movies—it’s a state of mind that’s unbearably tense and as claustrophobic as a straitjacket. Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel (she also penned the screenplay), the film is the harrowing story of a young woman named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who are imprisoned in a squalid 10-by-10 shed. Jack can’t fathom a world beyond the four walls that pen in his imagination. And while his mother tries to explain it to him, you get the sense that she’d almost rather forget it since escape seems like a fantasy too far-fetched to indulge. Their jailor is a brutal sadist named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who grants and withholds privileges depending on his whims. How long have they been in this room? What cruel fate put them here? The movie doles out these answers slowly, making us feel as disoriented as these doomed souls in confinement. To avoid spoilers, stop reading now.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, whose last film was the Michael Fassbender-in-a-papier-mâché-head lark Frank, Room is structured in two acts with a breathless escape-thriller intermission. The first traces Joy and Jack’s day-to-day psychological trials in captivity; the second tracks their uneasy adjustment to the world beyond “room” with Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), which comes to feel like a different kind of emotional prison. Room is the kind of spare and lean film that lives or dies depending on its performances. Fortunately, Larson and Tremblay are remarkable. Larson, who was so affecting in 2013’s Short Term 12, summons fierce maternal devotion and an exposed-nerve desperation. And Tremblay, an expressive long-haired moppet, is one of the rare kid actors who can convey innocence and resilience without coming across as precocious. He makes you see the world through a child’s naive, trusting eyes. Room may not be a pleasant place to spend two hours, but it’s an unsettling experience you won’t forget. A