To paraphrase Howard Hawks, a great movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.
By that definition, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is surely a great movie. An adaptation of the acclaimed Emma Donoghue novel, with a screenplay by her as well, the film is the harrowing story of a young woman and her son’s imprisonment via a rarely seen kidnapper. The woman is Joy (Brie Larson), taken by her assailant as a teen and locked away in a shed for some seven years now. Two years in Joy had Jack (Jacob Tremblay). They live in Room. That is all Jack knows. To preserve her son’s innocence/sanity/etc., Joy has presented their situation as an all-encompassing one. The world is but Joy, Jack and their captor “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Having never set foot outside of Room, Jack knows nothing of it. As such, the view from their lone window, a skylight, is said to be Outer Space. The images on their television are just make-believe from said Space.
This information is doled out by Abrahamson and Donoghue elegantly. The terror of the situation is real, if never bashed over one’s head. Told – largely – as if from Jack’s vantage-point, complete with occasional narration, the worst is kept out of frame. Old Nick’s visits are seen behind the openings in the armoire in which Jack sleeps. Hints of the conversation are heard, a bed rustling is feint and the briefest of glimpses are peeked. The claustrophobia of it is potent, beyond the physical nature of it. As if raising a child isn’t difficult enough, Joy must do so alone, with her son a constant presence at all seconds of the day.
Larson is just perfect; anguish, love and everything in between played without a missed beat. Tremblay does his job too. One can imagine Abrahamson manipulating hours of footage for the right silences and glares, but there is definitely acting here.
Yet, to bring things back to that Hawks quote, I’m not sure Room is a great film. A few musical missteps make their faces present. Key scenes, including the biggest of the picture, are staged in a manner that lacks the realism and grit around it. This isn’t to say there are chunks of Room that fail. That is assuredly not the case. There are moments that aren’t quite hitting the mark.
In the back chunk of the narrative, time seems to slip off the pacing. Without saying too much, vital reactions of Jack and Joy lack the meat of the in between. Conversations one would expect to be privy to aren’t shown, skipping a beat to the next big shouting match or breakthrough. Those transitions are key to keeping the drama and, more importantly, the character arcs click.
What stands is nonetheless worthwhile. The opening hour or so takes your breath – and a liter or two of tears – away from you. But a great film is more than a handful of great scenes.This is but a damn good one.