Friday, May 27, 2016

The Room

A few days ago I saw the 2015 film The Room. It's based on a true story I remember vividly from 2008: an Austrian man, Josef Fritzl, built an underground bunker with plumbing and electricity, then kidnapped his 18-year-old daughter and kept her there for 24 years as his sex slave. She had seven children by him while in the bunker: one died. Three of the children lived in the small bunker while three were raised by Fritzl and his wife. When Elisabeth's oldest bunker child, a 19-year-old daughter, became seriously ill, Josef agreed to drop the young woman at a hospital, where her pallor, malnutrition, rotten teeth and the strange note in her pocket made the television news. 

Josef, remarkably, let Elisabeth, the mother, go to the hospital, expecting her to stick to a cover story he had concocted, but she, not surprisingly, used this as a chance to gain her freedom.

In Emma Donoghue's 2010 novel and the screenplay she scripted, the abducted family has been reduced to two: Joy and her five-year-old son Jack, visited every few days by their captor, Old Nick. The scene is now Ohio, and Donoghue mutes some of the horror of the original story by making Old Nick a random sociopath, not Joy's father. Further, the shed they live in, while small and very shabby, is above ground and has a skylight, and Joy's abduction lasts "only" seven years.

In the Room, jack and Joy string together egg shells into a snake to pass the time. Nothing is wasted.

The film is emotionally powerful. I read afterwards that Brie Larson, who plays Joy, won the best actress Academy Award along with a Golden Globe and a slew of other prizes for her role. She was excellent, as was the boy, Jacob Tremblay, who played Jack. As I watched this film, which at the time I knew nothing about, I recognized a woman must have had a major hand in it, so was not surprised to find out the screenplay was by a woman.

While being locked for years in a small shed by a sociopathic rapist is inherently horrible, what struck me most about the film was the way, after they are saved, the boy, and me, as an audience member, had a longing to return to the simplicity of the Room. Life in the Room was stark, down to basics. Everything, from teeth brushing to exercise to baking a cake, took on a heightened importance. No detail, no matter how tiny, was insignificant. In addition, the bond between the mother and child was, unsurprisingly, extraordinarily tight. Although the product of horror, I felt the room contained a truth about life, the truth that concentrating on the essentials, that pushing away all the distractions, can lead, paradoxically, to a more intensely and minutely experienced sense of being than being spread diaphanously thin, as perhaps most are in the modern world. 

Less, in other words, is more.

Joy looks up at the skylight in the Room. You can see the edge of the pink bathroom sink to the right, that doubles as a kitchen sink. The 11 by 11 room contains an open pink toilet and a pink tub. It's not a pleasant place. 

I wondered if I were strange in my reaction of finding the Room itself compelling but in her Atlantic review, Sophie Gilbert captures a similar reaction:

It’s hard to imagine that such a bleak scenario could be made so beautiful, but Abrahamson finds poetry in the small details of Room, captured through grey filters to emphasize the lack of light. More, though, the film captivates because of its central duo, who are each other’s whole world. As much as the audience empathizes with Jack, and feels his agony at losing what he interprets as a safe and familiar environment, so too they feel Ma’s pain in having to disrupt it.

Manholha Dargis's New York Times review likewise records:

The constricted narrative and Jack’s point of view flow together. He doesn’t live in the same inhumane prison that Ma suffers in, but in a wide-open universe trembling with possibilities, with dancing lights, hand-shadow puppetry and amusements made with cardboard and eggshells. At moments, as the screen floods with close-ups, you share in Jack’s wonderment, in the granular, sensual splendor of this child’s cosmos in a few inches of sink, a shimmer of light, a mote of dust. “How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?” the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage once asked. Jack is as much an inmate as Ma, but because he’s unaware of what lies outside the room – and not wholly aware of its inside horrors – his vision remains untutored, his soul free. Jack’s unboundedness, the joy he expresses with Ma, the room and their meager possessions — his laughter and delight and kidness — are visceral and pleasurable. Crucially, he doesn’t live in a room or the room, but in Room, which he refers to as if it were another living being.

To prepare for this blog, I revisited the Fritzl case and realized that, perhaps necessarily, the film mutes the horror of the reality. Yet even there in Austria, in the dim basement light, with the barely more than five foot ceilings, the sociopathic Fritz must have thought he was behaving humanely: he brought toys for the children, set up a television, VCR and a cassette player: or, do I project and was it just to keep the children pacified and to force the daughter to watch porn films with him--to keep himself amused and as a little annoyed as possible during his visits--that he provided these amenities? 

I wonder if the film shouldn't have shown more of the horror of the situation: but then it would have been a different film. It has left me with much to ponder: much as I found it compelling, it was a conservative political film, and its message that beauty can be found anywhere is one to interrogate. Dorothy Day, a journalist for the communist paper The Call before the first World War, chafed at having to depict life in the New York tenements as relentlessly bleak and horrible, when, in fact, she experienced the deep joy of, say, an immigrant family coming together over a home-cooked meal. Life doesn't rhyme, and she longed to show the reality of good and bad mixed. This film seems to arise out of a similar impulse, and yet we must be careful, when showing that good can come out of evil, not to use that to justify or domesticate the evil. We don't have to have the evil to have the good. I keep in my mind Day's oft-repeated desire to help build a world in which it would be "easier for people to be good." In our case, the goal may be to create a world where it is easier for people to live simpler lives-- but without having to be held captive. 


  1. Now I regret not seeing it. At the time I thought 1) it might be too upsetting were it really done conveying the abjection, fear, trauma; at the same time I read that they had softened the book and I feared I'd be given this upbeat version of terrible abuse the society lets happen. This is not an unusual case! Families are sancro-sanct. Finally I was ambivalent about the book. Here is the blog I wrote:

    I felt there was something fey about having the child as narrator. It allowed Donoghue to escape having to show the depths of the horror. Also unlike say To Kill a Mockingbird (over-rated book people are now admitting) the child's point of view doesn't work. He's too young. Scout is nearly 10.

    I guess I cared too much about the issue. I wanted to go almost to vote for this sort of film being done. By a woman. But note that it has had no effect even on the movie industry which let it out, and then movie-theater owners who saw an continuing audience. I'll try Netflix.

    Thank you for this illuminating blog. Many who have seen the movie will not have read the book, even fewer I fear know the reality that lay behind it.

  2. Ellen,
    I have not read the book. In fact, I had never heard of the book, so my only point of comparison is the Fritzl reality, which is much harsher, really disgusting. I do think we need another movie: maybe a retelling of the Fritzl story that tells that more relentlessly horrible story, but would that be too hard for audiences?

  3. A retelling of the Fritzl story would be a documentary or close to a documentary. This is a film where there is the view and the work of the artist as veil between facts and "spectators". A wonderful, sensitive blog.

  4. I did not see the film as I also had the impression it would be too disturbing. After reading your informative blog on the film and actual event, I will spare myself the torment. Yet I can appreciate the filmmaker's effort to find some beauty in the horror of the situation. I couldn't help thinking of the concentration camps and how the inmates also had to create something meaningful in order to go on, to survive. But what I gather about the film is that, besides finding meaning and beauty in the simple things in life, it also does much to veil the utter horror at the centre of the experience. What must it have been like for the daughter to be repeated raped by her father and held captive while her mother knew of it? What a monumental double betrayal! What did this do to her and to her relationship to her own children? Finally, what about the deep-seated sense of male entitlement that the underlying patriarchal structure of the family perpetuates and that the film seemingly condones? Doesn't this merit consideration? For me, there is much -- too much that is left unsaid.

  5. Elaine,
    The film is far less disturbing than the actual Fritzl case, in part because incest is entirely left out of it: Joy is kidnapped by a random sociopath. The rape is mute--there, but off screen--and the violence and humiliation are also there, but muted. I did think of concentration camps--would we depict one as "silver lined" as the Room? Probably not. The sense of male entitlement is one to ponder.