“Room” and the Paradox of Isolation

by Danny Stout

Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is two movies in one. Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson) and her son, five year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), are kidnapped by Jack’s father, the heartless sociopath “Old Nick,” (Sean Bridgers) and locked in a shed for several years. For Jack, “room” is the only world he knows, and Ma makes the best of his world (e.g., bed, table, refrigerator, chair #1, chair #2, sink, bathtub, toilet, and TV).

The other movie is life outside “room,” which takes every ounce of their love to adjust to. Thus, it is a story of adaptation and transition.

Ma’s initial strategy is to convince Jack that “room” is all there is. The images on TV such as other people, trees, cars, etc. are magic; they’re made up. Jack accepts this explanation, and develops a worldview around it. They read together, laugh, and prepare themselves for periodic visits from mad-at-the-world, Old Nick. Jobless, Joy and Jack are his only possessions of value, but he never stays long, remaining aggressive and dictatorial. This adds to Joy’s depression.

Room, based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue remains true to her psychological study of isolation and later adjustment to freedom. room-review.w529.h352.2xF. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Man can endure anything, once he gets used to it,” and George Bernard Shaw declares, “if you don’t get what you like, you better like what you get.” Given the heavy metal door with computerized lock, Joy accepts her fate at first, but must shield her pains of hope from Jack. In fact, Jack begins to love “room.” Why not? It’s his world, and provides for his needs. When Joy mentions the “other side of these walls.” Jack’s upset: “What is a side?” He lacks the cognitive ability to understand an “outside,” and is frightened by the suggestion that something exists beyond “room.” At his point, Joy realizes the danger in Jack’s limited worldview, and plans their escape.

Disclosing her plan requires a spoiler alert given the suspense element, so suffice it to say they eventually get out. In fact, more than half the movie takes place post-“room.”

Needless to say, it is a rough adjustment. The spatial differences alone have Jack curling into a fetal position afraid to talk to people. room-ROOM_DAY40-0056_rgb_2040.0Joy can’t make sense of the new environment and, like Jack, no longer possesses good communication skills. She’s into herself, drawing resentment from her mother (Joan Allen) who also claims victimization with a daughter missing for seven years. Her father (William H. Macy) is so repulsed by Old Nick, that he refuses to look Jack in the eye; he can’t accept him as his grandson. An old family friend (Sean Bridgers), is the steady hand that guides mother and son back to life beyond “room.”

Mother and son resume their tight bond facing life’s next phase; they deal with frustrations, but also delight in new foods, entertainment, and making friends. Room can be read at several levels; it’s an inspiring mother-son story about overcoming insurmountable odds. At another level, it deals with the Christian paradox of the world that is to be simultaneously embraced and shunned. Perhaps most fascinating is the occasional nostalgia Jack has for “room.” If you could remove Old Nick,  it was a place of safety in a controllable world, and, most importantly, there was constant attention from “Ma.” Some religious groups seek isolation. On the other hand, the world is an infinite source of opportunities for growth; it’s a necessary condition for the Plan of Salvation. It is a thinking person’s movie raising the question, “What should the world be?”

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