If you went to an American high school, you probably encountered Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that lumbering institution of a play. You might have sat through two hours of teenagers botching New Hampshire accents, dropping lines, and inexpertly miming turn-of-the-century cooking, only to have the wind knocked out of you by the play’s unfailingly poignant climax.
Our Town’s first two acts comprise a wholesome, leisurely domestic drama about life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners in the early 20th century, culminating in the young heroine Emily Webb’s marriage to her high school sweetheart. But after an intermission, act 3 opens on Emily in the afterlife, after she has died in childbirth. The play’s godlike Stage Manager offers to take her back to earth to relive one day of her life, but warns Emily that the experience may not be what she expects. She chooses an “unimportant day,” her twelfth birthday. As she watches her family and her younger self, she becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the weight of love and meaning she now sees behind each gesture. She takes in as much as she can before delivering the play’s climactic cry:
I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast we don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. […] Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?
For its first two-thirds, Our Town is a play about the mundane and the familiar. It is an elaborate setup for a moment of intense defamiliarization — a moment where the world is rendered new and strange and special.
Defamiliarization is a term coined by literary critic Viktor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” Shklovsky observed that, just like many other human behaviors, perception can become habitual and automatic. We can get so used to looking at things that we stop seeing them; we can focus on what an object means to us and miss perceiving the object for its own sake. The object’s physical qualities, and aesthetic beauty, are functionally invisible to us. “We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack.” To get the object out of that sack and really look at it, we need help — we need art:
Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. […] The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.
Most of my favorite films help the viewer “recover the sensation of life,” and no film I saw in 2015 made the world feel more unfamiliar, more renewed, than Room did.
Room’s advertising has capitalized on the intense emotional response the film has provoked in viewers. The poster at my local theater is covered in rapturous pullquotes — “an emotional triumph,” “transforming,” “life affirming.” But the premise is about as far from uplifting as it gets. Room’s script (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel) tells the story of a young woman kidnapped at seventeen and kept as a sex slave for seven years in her captor’s shed. After two years of rape, she bears a son. That son, Jack, is the key to the radical hope that the film offers.
Because Jack has never known life outside the small room, his mother (Brie Larson), known only as “Ma” to him, constructs a mythology for him as an act of grace — to spare him from knowing the evil into which he was born. For Jack, the cosmos is finite and delineated into zones. Their room is called Room. Room is the whole world; every real thing is inside it. “TV” is another zone of the cosmos — but things “in TV” are not real. Outside Room is outer space, and then heaven. In front of Jack, Ma calls their captor “Old Nick” (an old slang name for the devil). While Old Nick plays the bogeyman in Jack’s life, the rest of his world is an ordered, peaceful place. And because the narrative drops us in with this cosmology, the camera sees the world through Jack’s innocent eyes, even as we gradually come to know the truth Ma knows.
Jack, five years old when the movie begins, loves his little life with a zeal that Emily Webb in Our Town learned only too late. He greets his world the way that she parted with hers: Emily’s “Good-by to clocks ticking. Mama and Papa. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths,” against Jack’s “Good morning Ma! Good morning plant! Good morning sink!” The novel Room is written in first person from Jack’s perspective, and director Lenny Abrahamson has chosen to adopt this child’s point of view as the spiritual rudder for the film. Abrahamson, cinematographer Danny Cohen, and actor Jacob Tremblay have worked together to make Room read from Jack’s perspective. Abrahamson and Brie Larson (who helped direct Tremblay) elicit a performance from the young actor that radiates gentleness, wonder, and intelligence.
Room is not shot strictly “through Jack’s eyes” — Jack appears in many, even most, shots — but Abrahamson has internalized Jack’s frame of mind and used it to guide his aesthetic choices. The room in which Ma and Jack are imprisoned is dingy and small, but cinematographer Cohen often shoots at Jack-height, making things feel big. The light in Room is always soft and diffuse, giving the figures a cool, delicate glow.
The naïve directorial eye lets us get near Ma’s unimaginable horror without flaying her before the camera. Room might have seemed sensationalist or pulpy if we had been shown everything, the rapes and beatings. But Ma makes sure Jack is safely resting inside a wardrobe before Old Nick comes to rape her each night. And when she shuts the wardrobe door, the film keeps us there with Jack. Abrahamson lets the shot play in the dark, and the audience is left trying to imagine what those sounds — so sickening to us — might have meant to him.
Abrahamson keeps us in Room for just long enough to convince us that this could be someone’s whole world. So when — at the climax of an unbearably tense escape sequence — the outside world finally bursts into Jack’s view, the moment is transcendent. Jack’s small face fills the screen, awestruck at the bigness of the blue sky, a sky he’s never seen more than a sliver of. And then we cut to the sky, and we feel a rush of newness and ecstasy. Room asks us: what would it feel like to see the sky for the first time? If you’d spent your life knowing only the inside of four walls, how shocking would it be to feel air and space extending outward from you in every direction, all at once, with cold new air in your lungs and more stimuli than you’d ever learned to bear? It would feel like being born. Like being born again. When Jesus said we need to become like children, this might be one thing he meant: we need to see the world as new, with all the awe and fear and possibility that that implies.
Room anchors its perspective in a character whose eyes are entirely fresh, and thus makes the world unfamiliar to us again. The formal beauty of the film gives the audience an experience of the world made new. Abrahamson doesn’t think of himself as a formalist — in an interview with Variety, he described his “commitment… to have the directorial voice be very delicate. For me, I always think of the image of sweeping out my footprints as I walk through a scene.” But Room is stylistically rich and innovative, undeniably guided by a distinct creative voice; the filmmaking is not merely conventional and far from invisible. When Abrahamson speaks of the directorial voice he wants to keep “delicate,” he’s talking about his own voice, his commentary. But through his stylistic choices, Abrahamson performs a kind of cinematic ventriloquism, “throwing his voice” so that it seems to come from a character. This allows him to make a film with a fascinating, unusual style, because it’s motivated by a character with a fascinating, unusual psychology. The first time Brie Larson saw playback of footage they had shot, she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, I see it looks just like a European film.” Larson identified a quality in the filmmaking that she couldn’t put her finger on. She called it “European”; Pier Paolo Pasolini would have called it “poetic.”
In his 1965 essay “The Cinema of Poetry,” Pasolini writes about his longing for a more poetic cinema. He expresses dissatisfaction with classical cinema style, which usually behaves more like prose: it’s serviceable, narrative in function, and lacking the freedom and evocative power that poetry affords. Nevertheless, many directors make narrative films that have the quality of poetry. Pasolini tries to put his finger on what these directors are doing differently. His thesis is that these directors, consciously or subconsciously, are borrowing a technique from literature called “free indirect discourse.” In fiction, free indirect discourse allows an author to enter into the perspective of a character and speak from that character’s point of view. Pasolini theorizes that poetically-inclined directors often choose to anchor their films in the perspective of a character who has a strange way of seeing the world. We “re-live” [the world] through the ‘look,’” the viewpoint, of this character. A director takes on this character’s unusual or neurotic way of seeing things and uses it to guide the film’s aesthetic — and this way the director can make more artistic, poetic cinema than he or she could have otherwise. When a director (consciously or subconsciously) establishes the “dominant state of mind” of the film in this way, it “allows him a great stylistic liberty” to make “a totally and freely expressive, even expressionist, film.”
Pasolini’s theory is that a director can unconsciously use free indirect discourse as a way to make the poetic film he or she really wants to make — “the [film] the director would have made even without the pretext of visual mimesis of the protagonist.” Directors can reveal their true artistic spirit when they make a film that is ostensibly through someone else’s eyes.
It’s hard not to think of Lenny Abrahamson as such a director. Abrahamson describes his style as invisible, but in Room, it’s just not true. To bring to life the first-person perspective in Emma Donoghue’s novel, Abrahamson has made Room in the subjective-poetic spirit Pasolini describes. When Jack wakes up in the hospital with Ma after his rescue, the shots are full of ethereal white light; Jack asks Ma, “Are we in another planet?” and it feels like we might be. Abrahamson, cinematographer Danny Cohen, and editor Nathan Nugent have crafted a cinematic language for expressing Jack’s wonder. After a while in the world, Jack describes it as “always changing brightness and hotness and soundness.” When we see Jack jump wildly on the upholstered furniture of a normal suburban home, or tumble through grass, or watch cars zoom past on the highway, the cinematic technique defamiliarizes these experiences to the audience. Slow motion makes us feel like gestures are teeming with meaning; slight overexposure of the image makes us feel like the world is a little too bright to take in; objects coming in and out of focus make us feel like we’re just getting used to the world.
Because we see through Jack’s eyes, we see the narrative’s central figure, Ma, through his eyes too. This way, Abrahamson can tell the story of an abuse survivor — a figure undergoing immense suffering — without letting the audience presume that they can truly understand or enter into that suffering.
Pasolini let us approach suffering in this way in his 1964 film The Gospel of St. Matthew. For most of the film, Pasolini keeps the audience (and the camera) about as close to the character of Jesus as his disciples are at any given time — sometimes we’re sharing an intimate meal with him, sometimes we’re following as he walks ahead, sometimes we’re watching him speak as if among a crowd. But as soon as Jesus’ Passion begins — his suffering in the final 12 hours of his life, leading up to his crucifixion — Pasolini puts distance between the audience and Christ. As Jesus is being taken to be tried before the priests, the camera follows Peter following Jesus. We see Jesus only as Peter sees him. Peter is trying to see without being seen, so he follows Jesus at a great distance, and the camera maintains that distance. When Peter approaches the square where Jesus’ trial takes place, we see the trial play out in a long shot, barely visible and audible, behind the many shoulders in the crowd. Peter bobs and weaves for a better view, and Pasolini jostles the camera to make the audience feel we are in the throng with him.
When Jesus is taken up to be crucified, Pasolini makes us experience his execution through the eyes of those who love him. We don’t suffer with Christ — that would be presumptuous, unseemly, almost blasphemous. Instead, the film stays mostly in reaction shots. We watch Jesus’ last moments in the reflected face of young, tear-stricken disciple John, and in those of his mother Mary (played by Pasolini’s own mother), doubled over in anguish in an agonizing long take. When the camera shows us Christ on the cross, we see him suspended, still, a kind of icon. Christ’s experiences during the Passion and on the cross cannot be rendered in earthly images or described in human terms, and Pasolini doesn’t try. He keeps its mystery intact; we can only understand it imperfectly, from a distance, with human witnesses like ourselves.
Room is a kind of Passion story, too — the Passion of Ma, another story of titanic spiritual suffering. And Abrahamson, like Pasolini, is careful to keep a reverent distance from Ma’s pain. In one scene, Ma’s mother criticizes Ma’s negative attitude, and Ma snaps back, in tears, “You have no idea what’s going on in my head!” As we hear this line on the soundtrack, we cut to a shot of Jack playing with blocks in the same room and looking up tentatively. She’s right: her mother doesn’t, and Jack doesn’t, and we, the audience, don’t either.
In her essay “The Love of God and Affliction,” Simone Weil says that suffering is not affliction “unless an event that grasps a life and uproots it attacks it directly or indirectly in all its parts — social, psychological, physical.” Ma is a victim of affliction. Weil stresses that such a condition cannot be shared. It is “specific, irreducible to any other thing, like sounds we cannot explain at all to a deaf-mute.” When Ma decides to tell Jack part of the truth of their situation in Room, she must try to explain the unexplainable — about how there’s a whole real world outside, with room for all the cats and dogs — but for some things, he still has to stay in the wardrobe. Some days inside Room, Ma would have a “gone day.” We see Ma in bed, submerged in sorrow, in a montage of shots showing how Jack passes the time when she is away. There is a shot in the latter half of the film where Jack tries to follow a distraught Ma, but she slams the bathroom door behind her, shutting him out of her suffering. The camera stays outside the bathroom. It is an echo of the wardrobe door that Ma gently shut on Jack the start of the film. There are places that he cannot go. There are places that we cannot go.
Stories create dramatic irony when the narration allows the audience to know more than the characters do about their situation. Room sets up a unique, dual-layered dramatic irony in its first half, because we’re following characters in the exact same situation with differing levels of maturity. The reality in Room is grisly, but limited: we understand the rules of the world Ma has built for Jack. And because of Abrahamson’s choice to anchor the film’s style in Jack’s perspective, we feel what only Jack feels, even as we know what only Ma knows. The suspense comes from worrying whether Jack, in his naiveté, will be able to understand and carry out Ma’s escape plan. But in the second half of Room, Jack and Ma are no longer in the exact same situation. The world to which Ma is returning is one we’re visiting, with Jack, for the first time.
I described Jack’s escape from Room as a rebirth, and so it is, with all of birth’s attendant pain. If Jack is the sand-blind newborn, then Ma has a kind of postpartum depression. For Jack, the world proves confusing and overstimulating, and he repeatedly expresses his desire to return to the womb of Room. Ma, on the other hand, spent so long dreaming of her life on the other side that she cannot cope with all the things that turn out to be broken once she gets there. The pain of the newborn and the pain of the postpartum mother are parallel sufferings, but they are different in quality and complexity. The audience stays with the young witness to this profound suffering, because it enough just to be near it it. As Weil puts it, “one can only accept the existence of affliction by considering it from a distance.”
The only possible tonic for affliction is love — Weil says that “the soul must continue to love in the void.” Ma loved in the void. She gave Jack a whole world in the space of a room. Because the film’s formal choices let us see through Jack’s “gaze,” we see that space from a perspective of gentleness and wonder — a perspective Ma fought so hard to give Jack. And this is how, despite the deep ugliness in the story, Room manages to be beautiful. It is not beautiful because the horror is toned down or covered or traded for a fantasy. It is beautiful because we see Ma’s choice to create beauty, even in the midst of horror.
We know that Ma and Jack are prisoners. We know that the walls are dirty and the shed is small. But when we see a series of shots of the crafts they’ve made — a papier-mâché dinosaur, a little boat floating in the back of the toilet, a string of eggshells — we feel Jack’s wonder at these things. And Jack’s spirit is the direct result of Ma’s resilient love. The camera in Room feels like a loving look, alighting on faces and objects and resting there. The camera in Room is Jack’s eye: not literally, but spiritually. And Jack loves because Ma first loved him.
Coming out of the movie theater here feels like leaving Room. You come out of the soothing dark womb of the theater, and the air feels too cold and fresh and strange. The world is overpowering in its brightness and soundness, teeming with movement and variety. And the world, too, feels heavier, soaked with sorrow. But there’s another feeling that rises up behind that one, a feeling like the one at the end of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Jesus’ family and disciples are weeping at his tombstone, only to hear from an angel that Jesus has risen again. And all at once we are running with the crowd up the hill to greet him again, the music swelling, tears of sorrow turning, alchemically, into tears of joy. Because tears upon tears are the only response to someone who has suffered unimaginably to love you, and to make the world new for you — to give you the love in which you live and move and have your being.
This piece originally appeared in the eBook Christ and Pop Culture Goes to the Movies: 2015, edited by Wade Bearden and Kevin McLenithan.