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'Room': A Wall-to-Wall Thriller

A mother's love warms a story of cold choices

(Video) 'Room' Movie Trailer: Held captive for years in an enclosed space, a woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) finally gain their freedom, allowing the boy to experience the outside world for the first time.


Run time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Rating: R

Stars: Joan Allen, Brie Larson, William H. Macy, Jacob Tremblay

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Harrowing, heartwarming and thrilling, Room creates a compelling universe within four stark walls and crackles with two career-making performances. Some scenes will leave you breathless. Others will bring you to tears. More than one will make you want to stand up and cheer.

Indeed, in this story about a young woman and her 5-year-old son — at the film's start, they've been held captive in a backyard shed for every day of the boy's life — director Lenny Abrahamson seems intent on pulling every emotional stop on the storyteller's pipe organ. He comes close to hitting every note.

Emma Donoghue, working from her 2010 best-selling novel of the same name, wrote the script. The book predates, but eerily echoes, the true story of three women and a child held captive for nearly a decade in an Ohio basement. (In a macabre coincidence, in 2012 Donoghue gave a public reading of Room barely three miles from the house where the women were being held.)

Room is told through the eyes of Jack, the little boy we see celebrating his fifth birthday in the opening scene. "Room," as he calls his environs, is all he knows. Besides his attentive, resourceful "Ma," his only friends are Room's spare furnishings: "Chair," "Sink," "Toilet." (Jack addresses them by proper nouns because each item is the only one of its kind in his circumscribed universe.)


George Kraychyk/Courtesy of A24

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in the thriller 'Room'

Much of the first hour of Room chronicles the pair's daily routine: coloring, making eggshell art, reading, exercising, even watching TV. To help Jack make sense of his bereft existence, Ma has concocted a sort of cosmology in which Room is the only reality. Beyond the walls lies empty space, and the things he sees on TV are merely fictional constructs. Food and supplies are brought in from the abyss by a creepy guy named "Old Nick," who Jack believes creates it all by magic. Old Nick also arrives for periodic overnights with Ma, during which Jack sleeps in a wardrobe. We don't need to be told who Jack's biological father is.

The occasion of Jack's fifth birthday gives rise to an escape plan, which unfolds right around the film's middle. The attempt is as hair-raising an episode as cinema has seen in years. Even the most jaded filmgoers will be digging their nails into the armrest as little Jack gamely attempts to enact Ma's scheme.

The degree to which he succeeds is revealed in the film's trailers, so it's no spoiler to say the second half of the film deals with mother and son acclimating to the big world outside Room. This is the less interesting part of the film, with the people the pair encounter predictably representing various shades of reaction. Ma's kindly mother, Nancy (Joan Allen), is nurturing; her cold father, Robert (William H. Macy), now separated from his wife, is cruel to a grandson who's the product of a rape. The doctors are endlessly accommodating, the TV interviewer viciously invasive. Nancy's new boyfriend, Leo (Tom McCamus), is impossibly cool, knowing just how to draw the traumatized Jack out of his shell. Things proceed with such narrative precision that we find ourselves asking, "How long before this kid gets a dog?" The wait is short.

As Ma, Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12) convincingly stakes her claim for Oscar gold. Her shifting displays of despair, hope, confusion, love and intermittent rage will ring true for any mother or father (you needn't be locked away with your child for five years to occasionally feel entrapped by parenthood). Young Jacob Tremblay has been doing TV and movies since 2013, but with his Margaret Keane eyes and wisp of a voice, he embodies an utter innocent who's been born, in a sense, at 5 years of age. Joan Allen has much more to do in the film than you might expect; as the mother whose daughter has been restored to her after seven years, she brings searing emotion to a woman who moves from one kind of grief to another. As for Macy, you get the feeling he'd like his character to be somewhat sympathetic; instead he comes off as a selfish prig.

Room is one of those movies that could end just about anywhere after the first half. More than once, it becomes clear the film is struggling to find the right fade-out. Finally, Jack himself sets up the ideal conclusion with a simple request to his mom. The last moments of Room end with a whisper — one barely audible above the sobs and sniffles of the audience. Like so much of Room, it is perfect.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.