The Irish director Lenny Abrahamson makes films that take people seriously. His movies are usually about sad people (see Garage and Adam & Paul), but they’re not always sad films (Frank offers hope for the part of each us that sometimes thinks we’re really weird). His latest, Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay) navigates the very fine, very tricky line between horror and inspiration.
It’s a terrifying premise—a young woman, known as Ma, (Brie Larson) and her five year- old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are imprisoned in a garden shed. Jack was born there, two years after Ma was first kidnapped. They live together in this space, co-creating an entire world. The threat from the kidnapper, whom they know as Old Nick, is clear. If they try to leave, they’ll be attacked, maybe even killed.
This could have been the foundation of a horrifying thriller, relying on shock tactics to get the audience’s adrenaline up. There have been enough such films that an entire genre exists—they’re called “woman in peril” films. Sometimes the woman escapes, sometimes she doesn’t, sometimes the bad guy is killed, sometimes he gets away. Sometimes the filmmakers try to justify their exploitation of the part of the human brain that is turned on by terror, sometimes they don’t.
In the case of Room, Abrahamson and Donoghue don’t need to apologize. This is a gripping thriller, to be sure (one scene in particular will have many people as excited and fearful for the characters as we’ve ever been for traditional action heroes); but it’s also a serious sketch of trauma that avoids the cliché of having a monster for a villain. Old Nick, despite being named after the devil, is nothing more or less than a very broken person who has chosen to behave in very terrible ways.
Room, unlike so many other crime stories, although promoting accountability, is not interested in seeking vengeance on those who cause so much destruction in the lives of others. Instead, a point comes where it simply ignores the perpetrator in favor of letting the victim speak. This not only makes for original drama, but resonates with some of the lessons of victim/survivor-centered trauma recovery.
More than that, it illustrates one of the most important truths about what it means to be human. We construct (and reconstruct) our identities based on the stories we are listening to and telling; we often need to revisit the stories we believed in formative years, either as a source of healing in later life, or as the very thing we need to recover from. Ma, whose portrayal here by Larson is so good that I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, literally lives for her child. She nurtures him in a story of safety that ultimately enables him to give back to her what she cannot do for herself. Tremblay, giving one of the great performances by a child actor, nuances Jack as a person faced with the most utterly uncommon experience, but to whom uncommon is of course nothing just the way things are.
In Life is Beautiful, the great Italian jester Roberto Benigni turned life in a concentration camp into a story game for his son, to protect the child from psychological damage. Some viewers considered this tasteless, but it reminded me of what the Victor Frankl suggested in Man’s Search for Meaning—itself emerging from his time in Auschwitz: Our experience and our imaginations are woven in an endless loop, where neither beginning nor end is ever visible. What you see depends on how you look at it.
Ma is nurturing in Jack what the Quaker teacher Parker Palmer calls a ‘hidden wholeness’, the deeper, inner container for hope, purpose, and receptivity to love. To say much more might be to spoil the plot of Room. But let’s note that it also touches on themes of who has the right to tell someone’s story, and how community intervention can help with the healing process, but that also a lack of affirmation from others can damage.
But most central to this powerful film, profoundly acted, and carefully (in both the sense of technical craft and spiritual sensitivity) directed and written is the actual story. The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe says that our identities are, quite simply, our “structure of meaning.” In other words, we heal our lives when we heal our memories, for we are just the stories we tell. The witness of history is that prisoners protect themselves emotionally when they cultivate a more whole imagination. And that while nothing real is ever truly lost, there are moments in all of our lives when the only whole and loving thing to do is to say goodbye.