“Into Darkness, Again”
Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson’s startling new film, Room (2015) begins with close-ups of material objects. The camera dwells on crumpled aluminum foil, and the rounded corners of a pinkish porcelain bathroom sink. The opening of the film is thus devoted to textures, the haptic realm that great cinema can sometimes approach, but most pedestrian cinema cannot possibly imagine. The film has time to dwell on such surfaces because the camera in its entire first segment is claustrophobically prohibited from leaving the small shed in which the central protagonists—a young mother, Joy (Brie Larson) and her small child, Jack (Jacob Tremblay)—have been confined by a kidnapper and rapist, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).
The basic structure of the film invokes Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic (380 B.C.E.). While much of cinema is built upon the basic notion that while living in the cave, deprived of the three-dimensional world outside, people are enslaved but contented, whereas the poor soul who escapes into enlightenment only returns to be beaten by his chained compatriots living in darkness. Most philosophical applications of Plato’s allegory—in education, for example, where to know is better than to be in the dark—celebrate the liberation from the cave, despite the anger such knowledge produces in our peers. However, in one remarkable formulation, in her book, Woman and Nature (1978), feminist Susan Griffin observes that for women, given that enlightenment is fueled by patriarchal oppression, the inside of the cave might not be all that bad.
Room is a remarkable film because it indicts both of these Platonic possibilities. The inside of the shed is misery incarnate. The child-turned-adult Joy must not only suffer rape and imprisonment, she also must heroically protect her Jack from the realities of the situation. She thus becomes a complicit storyteller, one who emphasizes the realities of “room” for Jack, protecting him from a maddening desire to go outside. For his part, Jack suffers the worst “primal scene” nightmare since David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), when he must hide in a wardrobe while Old Nick rapes and terrorizes Joy. When Jack tries to protect his mother, Nick hurts Joy even more.
However, the shocking thing about Room is that its second half points to a more terrible truth: once the abuser has destroyed you, the escape into “freedom” is all the more maddening. In a remarkable gambit, Joy risks Jack’s life by having him pretend to be dead so that Old Nick will take him out of the room. She wraps him in a carpet so that Nick will not see through their ruse. Any number of horrible things could happen to Jack during this journey, but through a series of strokes of luck, Jack is rescued, and the police eventually find Joy before Nick can kill her.
Joy returns to her childhood home, which was of course ripped apart by the trauma of losing a daughter. Joy’s father, Robert (played with startling coldness by William H. Macy) cannot even look at Jack, presumably because he is the product of rape, and a reminder of his daughter’s abduction. He quickly re-abandons the family. And, while the film makes room for the possibility of Jack’s return to a normal life outside of captivity, things are less hopeful for Joy. In order to pay for her legal bills, getting Old Nick to pay for his crimes (which we never actually see in the film), Joy must consent to a television news interview. In a scene far worse than anything we see happen inside the shed, a national reporter (played with terrifying coldness by Wendy Crewson) attacks Joy for sacrificing the safety of her son for her own freedom. It is the worst, and most correct, indictment of American news culture I have ever seen in a movie.
In short, particularly for Joy, the three-dimensional world outside of the cave is shockingly horrifying. Unlike the prisoners in Plato’s cave, she survives Old Nick’s shed remembering the joys of her childhood, reduced to only pictures and diaries in her room, messages from a girl murdered off by abuse. Late in the film, Joy’s mother is seen reading Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief (2005). The invocation of the Holocaust is apropos for theorizing these effects of trauma. In Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), Victor Frankl proposes that prisoners of Auschwitz survived by maintaining their connection to art (playing imaginary violins, for example). Joy does exactly that, telling Jack the story of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1944). However, when she gets out, Joy’s experience points to the limitations of Frankl’s logotherapy in our hyper-mediated world. Joy discovers not art and wonderment in community, but a vacated shell of individualistic reality television.
The point of the film is not that the outside world is worse than the shed. Instead, it implies that once you’ve been enslaved in the cave, the path to escaping it entails far more than wandering out into the light. Darkness abounds because anti-intellectual American culture doesn’t allow us to escape thinking that leads us back to the Stone Age. What society could allow the Old Nick’s among us to walk free, without even noticing them? At least in “room,” Joy and Jack could survive the perpetrator, without having to acknowledge the existence of his multitudinous enablers.