Room

Room

When I read the description of Room, I figured it was pretty much guaranteed that it would make the viewer appreciate life, and complain a lot less about the comparatively trivial obstacles and injustices we face compared to what the main characters in this movie deal with. To its credit, it delivers on that promise.

Joy is a 24 year old woman who was kidnapped at age 17 and imprisoned in a shed by a man whose name she doesn’t know, but whom she has christened “Old Nick.” (That makes me picture some crusty old sea captain sadist or sex offender type, but he turns out to be more the socially awkward, nerdy, clearly mentally ill 30-something kind of guy who probably was never able to date successfully and has talked himself into regarding what he has with Joy as close enough to the kind of relationship he’s entitled to and has always been denied.)

The inside of the shed is basically one medium to large room, with amenities like running water, electricity, a TV, cooking facilities, a bed, and more. It’s set up like that rather than a dungeon to support the illusion the kidnapper has created for himself: something homelike with a housewife-type woman he can return to at the end of the day and have sex and companionship with. If she asks nicely, he’s not averse to bringing her certain things she wants and needs; she just can’t ever leave.

She has by now become well trained. She mostly is meek and submissive toward the kidnapper. There are flashes of independence, defiance, freedom, power, etc. from her, but those are exceptions and they are always limited. Their interaction remains forever governed by the realization on both sides that whatever momentary fluctuations there are like that, in the end he is the dominant party and he will get his way on anything that really matters to him (including obviously her leaving or staying).

Which reminds me very much of a fundamentalist religious marriage. Think of, for instance, a child bride of some Taliban guy. I’m sure if you closely examined such a marriage you could cherry-pick elements to it that are not totally male-dominated, but all-in-all, it’s a coercive, paternalistic arrangement.

If there’s a difference—besides that a kidnapper locking a woman in a shed is crudely and obviously coercive rather than implicitly and subtly coercive—it’s that in certain cultures such male-dominated relationships are also accepted and even valued by many of the women. Amongst fundamentalist Christians in America, for instance, believers in hierarchical marriages where the man is the undisputed “head” of the family (often compared to Christ as the head of the church) are nearly as often female as male. Plenty of women have been socialized to love their chains and to despise anyone who would be presumptuous enough to seek to free them.

Joy is not one of them. Anytime she manifests anything other than pure opposition to her kidnapper it is clearly feigned.

Joy has a son, Jack, who turns 5 at the start of the movie, with her in the shed. (This is not confirmed until much later, but do the math and, yes, the kidnapper is the father.)

The kidnapper obviously is aware of Jack’s presence, but he takes only minimal interest in him. There’s kind of a tacit agreement between him and Joy to treat Jack as her child and not his. He makes casual inquiries about Jack, goes along with her wishes not to have sex in front of him (the kidnapper now comes to the shed late at night when Jack is asleep—or supposed to be—in a little compartment in a corner of the shed), and even drops off a toy for him for his birthday, but for the first five years of his life he’s apparently never seen his face nor spoken to him.

A truly fascinating aspect of Room is the psychological difference between how Joy and Jack experience their plight. Joy is aware of the context and has lived approximately two-thirds of her life in the “real world” outside the shed. Jack has no idea of the context and has lived his entire life in the shed.

Joy is perpetually burdened with the knowledge that she, and her son, are captives. She has something to compare her present life with, something that makes their existence nightmarishly restricted. She craves what she no longer has.

But presumably because she knows how horrific that awareness is, she chooses to shield her son from it. She raises him to believe that this shed he lives in—which they simply call “Room,” the way we might say “Earth” for our world—is all of reality, except for distant, inaccessible planets. She makes sure he has nothing to compare his life with, nothing to miss, nothing to crave.

I’ve read science fiction stories that explore themes like this, the idea that if you have a certain picture of reality from early on, it’s so deeply engrained within you that you really don’t even have the concepts to question it.

Later when she tries to tell him about the world, about what is outside the shed, he doesn’t believe her because he can’t grasp what it would even mean to be “outside” it. She says she means what’s on the other side of the walls, but the “other side” of the walls has no meaning to him. It’s like our being told that science has discovered that the physical world has not three dimensions, but seven or twelve or whatever. You can take that on trust I suppose, or if you’re good enough at math maybe you can follow a mathematical proof of it, but can anyone really understand it, or “picture” it?

Similarly, when he’s asked later whether the shed wasn’t horrifically small, he’s puzzled by the question. Of course not, he replies, it went all the way to the end in every direction. (What an amazing metaphor that scene, that line, is for the limitations on our lives that we don’t question or rebel against because they are so fundamental that we aren’t even conscious of them.)

TV doesn’t clue him in to the fact that there is a world beyond the shed, because—with Joy’s guidance—he interprets it all as make believe. The people on the news, in movies, on talk shows, whatever, aren’t real people, any more than cartoon characters are real people.

The shed has no windows, other than a skylight that looks like it’s about 20 feet up (and presumably inaccessible from the inside or obviously Joy would have escaped through it long ago), so it’s not like he can directly see outside.

I mean, the illusion Joy purposely creates isn’t leakproof certainly, and I’m sure you could come up with plenty of “but what about this?” or “how does she explain that?” objections, but remember he’s just now turning 5. It’s not like he has developed critical thinking skills and is looking for holes in what his mother tells him. And for anything that doesn’t seem to fit the picture that has been painted for him, there’s always the “magic” fallback of last resort: Where does the man they call “Old Nick” who brings the groceries and things that enable them to live come from? He comes and goes by magic, from TV Land.

Shortly after Jack turns 5, Joy attempts to explain the world to him, to in effect lift him out of the illusion she spent the last five years creating. This doesn’t go well, since, as I say, he doesn’t even have the conceptual framework to understand what she’s claiming. He dismisses it all as lies, or as a story that’s boring and stupid because it makes no sense.

Her motive for switching up on him doesn’t appear to have to do with any concern that he’s getting old enough to see through what she has been telling him, but instead the conviction that escape will be more likely if she has an accomplice. Indeed, it’s possible she’s been biding her time for the entire five years, always planning to bring him into her escape plots as soon as she deems him old enough to understand and to successfully play his part.

They attempt two tricks to get him out of the shed so he can summon help, one of which fails and one of which succeeds.

My first reaction was that both of them should have failed, that while the kidnapper is clearly a few slices short of a loaf in general, he certainly seems to be more than capable as to the specific pragmatic task of keeping them in captivity. But I don’t know, maybe it’s not so far-fetched that he’d finally slip up once in seven years and allow himself to be fooled.

Thus begins the second half of the film. The first half is claustrophobically shot solely inside “Room” to enable you to experience the world as Joy and Jack do; the second half concerns the ups and downs of their adjustment to freedom.

After a brief stint in a hospital, Joy and Jack end up back in the house she grew up in, with her mother and her mother’s new husband or boyfriend.

One might assume that given his Kasper Hauser-like background, the adjustment would be the hardest on Jack. I mean, this is all way beyond anything he even has the concepts to have imagined. And in the beginning, he is indeed the one who is most off-balance. He clings to his mother and is scared to talk to anyone else; he speaks of wishing he were back in “Room.”

But as a doctor points out, at his age he is still “plastic.” Plenty is new, and often scary, to very little kids. They get used to that and get over it, because they have to.

So, yeah, it’s a struggle for him, but it’s a really awkward and difficult situation for all concerned, definitely including Joy.

As thrilled as she is to be out of the shed finally, you have to remember that for seven years she has displayed heroic levels of strength and will power, and has manifested her love for her child in the extreme ways no one should ever have to, yet at the same time she has had no opportunity or necessity to develop and practice a good portion of the traits that enable one to live a sane, healthy, loving, emotionally mature life in a normal environment. In that one bizarre area of life—how to survive long term confinement in horrific conditions—she’s a pro. In everything else, she’s where she was when she was 17, or in fact worse since many of her life skills have atrophied since then.

There’s one telling scene where she is bickering with her mother, and she is the epitome of the self-centered, bratty, complaining, inconsiderate 17 year old (or truth be told, 13 year old).

All those years she had to hold things together, all those years she had to hold in her panic, fear, anger, and despair in order to create the happiest, healthiest childhood possible in those circumstances for her son. Now all of a sudden that burden, that responsibility, is gone. It was a persona she had to maintain so continuously for so long that it became who she was. It was how she defined herself, what she took pride in, how she manifested her strength. When she’s relieved of the necessity of sustaining that, she crumbles.

Then she’s asked whether she ever considered turning over the baby as soon as it was born to her kidnapper and seeking to get him to abandon the infant at a hospital or somewhere. Maybe he would have refused, or told her he’d do it and just killed it or something, but at least there would have been a chance that Jack (or whatever name he would have been given) could have had a normal life on the outside, rather than being raised in this bizarre captivity. It’s an idea that drives her into depression and instability.

I didn’t get the impression that it hurt her because it was something she’d felt guilty about all along. She reacted like it was the first time she’d thought of it that way. (To be honest, I hadn’t thought of that angle myself until the question was asked.)

But think about the implications of that, how dramatically it can reverse her self-perception. Here we’ve been thinking of her, and presumably she’s been thinking of herself, as this heroic—as I said earlier—person, this mother who has through some miracle of brains, courage, and self-sacrifice given her child the best possible childhood in terrible circumstances. Except now the possibility is raised that it was not in fact necessarily the best available childhood, because she hadn’t even explored the possibility of having her child removed from those terrible circumstances entirely.

The suggestion is that she chose for Jack to be raised in “Room.” But why? Because at some level—consciously or not—she realized that she could only maintain her will to live if she were responsible for another human being, if she had no choice but to keep herself together on a day-to-day basis because she had taken on this extraordinarily important and challenging task.

So in that sense this behavior of altruism and extreme self-sacrifice could be seen instead as selfish. She wasn’t saving him; his presence was saving her.

In the end I think what we realize is that they have always each needed the other and the other’s strengths.

There are two occasions when Jack is thanked for saving Joy’s life. One is when he escapes first and is able to summon help for her. The other is his keeping up her spirits and giving her a reason to live when she is at her low point in the adjustment period on the outside. (I would say there’s another—his mere existence for those five years in “Room” that may have been necessary to give her a reason to live.)

What’s interesting though is that these are ways he helped where he was completely passive (e.g., his aforementioned mere existence in “Room” with her), or where an adult would have been even more effective. So thanking him comes across as sort of exaggerated or patronizing, since it’s arguable how much credit he really deserves.

But I’m going to say that there’s yet another way he supports and assists her when she needs it, and that it’s precisely his child nature that enables him to do so.

One of the absolute most important things I’ve learned as an adult exploded in my consciousness a little over a decade ago, as for really the first time in my life I came to love some wonderful children, and observed them with complete fascination and was totally engaged whenever I interacted with them. I realized there is a great deal we can learn from children.

Now that’s the kind of cliché that almost everyone, especially parents, would assent to if asked, but I don’t know how many people really appreciate that and mean it literally, as I do.

As I see it now, there are many ways an adult is more advanced than a child and rightly leads the way and teaches the child, but there are also a few ways that most children are actually ahead of most adults. True maturity is not outgrowing childhood, but taking the best and retaining it from each stage of life. The wise person doesn’t leave childhood behind, but embraces the best parts of childhood throughout his life, while augmenting that with elements that the child would not have had the sophistication to incorporate into his life.

The beautiful scene I’m thinking of occurs at the end, when Jack, in his simple, unself-conscious, child’s way, demonstrates how to achieve closure after a trauma. And Joy sees, and gets it.

I had unusually high expectations for Room, or at least unusually high in certain respects. That is, I anticipated that this would be a very, very hard-hitting story emotionally, that I’d probably be choked up 30 seconds into the film and stay that way throughout.

I can’t say it quite had that effect on me—that it had me in that kind of emotional state most or all the way through—but there were individual scenes that hit me especially hard like that.

Two of the strongest such moments were the scene when Jack first opens his eyes outside and sees the world beyond “Room,” and that scene at the end when he shows how he is putting the “Room” years behind him.

But actually the one that blew me away emotionally even slightly more than those two is one that I expect not too many people would rank number one. That was the reunion scene, when with the assistance Jack summons, Joy is freed from “Room” and rushes frantically to rejoin Jack.

Because you remember at that moment that these are two people who until just an hour or whatever earlier had not been more than a few feet away from each other for the entire five years of Jack’s life. And you realize that this first ever separation could have very easily been a permanent one, since there was no guarantee—and in fact I would say it was a considerable long shot—that even if Jack escaped anyone would be able to find and free Joy before the kidnapper killed or moved her. So that moment when it becomes clear that these two people who have been so utterly dependent on each other for their sanity and their very survival inside “Room” will also have each other on the outside after all is just amazing.

Very strong recommendation for Room. I have experienced few movies as thought-provoking and emotion-provoking. It teaches you to appreciate all the good things that life provides that are so easy to overlook because they’re so omnipresent. Every day you experience things—and could experience more if you took advantage of the opportunities—that in other circumstances might have never been available to you, from the simplest pleasures to the deepest love.

Since I saw Room, I’ve thought of little else; that’s a pretty good indication of how powerful it is.

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