The article below contains spoilers.
The Revenant’s central theme is usually summarized as either survival or revenge. It’s both in some sense, but more the latter: “Revenge” is its plot arc, but “survival” is the thing we are meant to experience with Leo in order to come to a deeper understanding of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s what-if scenario. The power of the whole movie is supposed to rest on this.
I (and a few others on the Inverse staff) didn’t get much out of ambitious project. Outside of the signature cinematography — which, as in all of Emmanuel Lubezki’s project, creates a rich, dizzying spatial sense — Iñárritu’s movie doesn’t leave us with anything to think through afterwards. A vertigo-inducing and shocking experience in the moment, sure — but too often, gunning a bit too hard to deliver these sensations, with utmost self-importance.
Another Oscar nominee which has gotten significantly less widespread attention that Iñárritu’s film — and certainly fewer ticket sales — is Lenny Abrahamson’s indie production Room. The modest movie deals with the theme of survival in a way that is more complex and nuanced that Iñárritu’s willfully bombastic one. Unlike The Revenant, Room overpowers the viewer on both a psychological, as well as physical level. The first half of the film, which shows leads Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) — mother and son — locked in the garden shed of “Old Nick,” (Sean Bridgers) a near-middle-aged man who kidnapped Joy when she was 17. Jack, now 5, was born while Joy was imprisoned, the result of one of Nick’s unsolicited weekly night visits.
If this seems like a recipe for indulgently grim sensationalism, Abrahamson and the cast manage to avoid it through careful scripting and direction. The first half of Room artfully builds our sense of Jack and Joy’s close relationship — which seems disconcertingly and beautifully normal considering their circumstances. They live in what we at first perceive as a tiny, one-room apartment, before we — like Jack about a half-hour to forty-five minutes in — get a sense of their context. Just when we feel, as Jack has assumed his entire life, that we will never leave “Room,” Jack escapes by playing dead rolled up inside a rug, runs away from Nick (in one of the film’s most harrowing scenes) and manages to get help to free his mother.
The sense of unimaginable perseverance throughout the film’s first half is just as palpable as in Iñárritu’s movie. Joy’s actions are infinitely more plausible than that of Leo’s Hugh Glass’s — not superhero-ish, and much more remarkable for it. The thing that amazes and moves us about Larson’s character, initially, is her ability to hold herself together for both her own benefit and Jack’s. It is not until the two leave the shed that things truly fall apart. When she returns to the world, it’s difficult for her to comprehend how it has moved along without her — her parents divorced, her old friends having whole new lives, and in general seeing a world that has adjusted under the assumption that she is gone for good. Her reaction works because the film has already masterfully put across that sense of both time standing still and moving slower than anything.
But a primetime interviewer’s opportunistic suggestion that Joy’s choice to keep Jack with her in the room was selfish shatters her composure. The complexities of her instincts in that extreme situation unfold before her, now that she has the opportunity to have perspective. Her mental universe — like the world — expands dizzyingly. The film opens and closes these chasms for us; the audience along with the characters senses the dizzying immensity of things. Jake seems like a normal five-year-old boy in many ways, until he’s faced with the world all at once — one so much bigger than the size of a cheap storage unit. The movie does not feel constricting and suffocating, like it is showing misery for its own sake. It’s a measured and powerful story about an awakening — a very imperfect path to redemption or self-actualization.
Somehow this film manages to make the fun the two have in their “Room” palpable, and make Jack’s desire to return there after they leave — and perhaps Joy’s, as well — make sense, in its harrowing way. Accomplishing this is a huge feat.
Room may not have the sweeping stylistic vision of The Revenant; indeed, the changing perspective and sometimes oddly invasive scoring may be jarring, and feel misplaced to those who are expecting a more conventional film. But it manages to guide the viewer through an unbelievably complex emotional landscape without ever presuming to tell us how to feel, or throw in climactic moments that feel forced. Joy’s attempted suicide — on paper, a difficult thing to not sensationalize — seems tragically believable after all we have seen her go through; the interviewer’s question is a believable lynch pin. Leo negotiates an obstacle course, and Joy and Jack live a seemingly bottomless eternity inside just a small portion of a lifetime.
The Revenant looks beautiful, and give us a visually unforgettable sense of an extreme landscape. Room, however, establishes and carries us along with the most challenging emotional trajectory shown in any film of last year. In so doing, it provides us with a richer and more lasting sense of what “survival” might look and feel like.