“Room” and the Allegory of the Cave

Room Brie Larson

Room is the adaptation of a popular novel by Irish writer Emma Donoghue, with a screenplay written by the author herself and ably directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Those are the basic facts. But there is always a gap between facts and truth. The truth is that the film pushes against the outer boundaries of what we understand about love, family, parenting, epistemology, and even the meaning of existence itself.

That, of course, is an awful lot of freight to put on one movie—especially a film that, for much of its duration, concerns only two actors interacting in a tiny space, one of whom was a seven or eight year old boy at the time of filming (albeit playing a five-year-old).

Again, the facts are simple: Brie Larson plays Ma, a woman who has been detained for seven years after being kidnapped by a rapist psychopath and installed in a tiny shed for which only he, “Old Nick,” controls exit and entry. For five years she has raised a child, Jack, in this small room, attempting to cope with her dehumanizing circumstances while making Jack’s strange, claustrophobic world as intelligible to him as possible.

The real world parallels are well-known enough: author Donoghue looked at horrifying cases of women’s imprisonment and rape, such as the notorious Fritzl story in Austria as she wrote the book, while another, similar case emerged after it was released (the Ariel Castro kidnappings—that motherfucker was sent away for life plus 1000 years).

So what is Room about? On one level, it is about how anyone adapts to gruesome conditions, whether a concentration camp, gulag, plantation, prison, or backyard shed. As critics have widely noted, it’s about the enduring love of mother and child that somehow transcends sadism, trauma, and an inescapable feeling of powerlessness—in a sense, what historians call “agency,” the way that humans carve out lives through sheer force of will in even the most (literally) confining circumstances.

Critics have often described Room as a feminist film, and I would suggest that it is. I could not help but think of The Feminine Mystique while watching the interactions between Ma and her captor, Old Nick—while the shed is a far cry from the Westchester homes of Friedan’s frustrated middle-class housewives of the 1950s, Room still offers a grotesquely distilled vision of utter dependency on male authority. Over the years, Ma has learned to negotiate (another favorite word of historians) with Old Nick, her only outlet to the outside world and her sole source of food, electricity, and so forth. She has to be careful what she asks for, and she has to be polite, even gracious, for what he supplies just so that she and Jack can survive. When her captor loses his job, she has to worry about corralling resources, like so many other women forced to depend on a man in more ordinary conditions.

Old Nick, of course, is so deluded and deranged that he can lecture her on “Who pays the bills around here?” and “You didn’t have to worry your pretty little head about that, did you?” as if he’s doing her a favor by imprisoning and raping her while being a male “provider.” If the women of Friedan’s generation saw the suburban home as a kind of prison—in a time before no-fault divorce and all the other historic gains of second-wave feminism—then Old Nick’s shed is just the reductio ad absurdum of disempowerment under patriarchy. One thinks of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as well.

That reading is fitting enough, but there is more going on. If Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was a uniquely compelling take on depression, then Room does much the same thing for trauma. Like slaves who had to thread the needle of interactions with masters that always risked the possibility of violence or even death, Ma and Jack created room for themselves within the impossible confines of Room. The one claim that the mother was able to stake out in Old Nick’s dictatorial rule was that he would never see nor touch her son, who stayed more or less in a small cabinet or cupboard whenever the master came for his visits. For whatever reason, the monstrous man was willing to concede this one small point, with considerable repercussions for the development of the story.

It’s not a big spoiler to say that Ma and Jack eventually escape, since the trailer for the film makes this clear. Yet the movie is all the more poignant in explaining how a woman who has been pushed to the limits of endurance and despair in trying to protect her child finds it nearly impossible to protect herself. Freedom, in this case, is truly just another word for nothing left to lose, as Ma struggles to adjust to the world outside. She has been robbed of her youth, her late teens and twenties—having been forced into a sadistic charade with only the most radically reduced options to choose from for most of the life she can remember. And then the world opens up.

I have not read the original book, though I understand it was written from the point of view of the child. The film borrows some of this approach, with lyrical and wide-eyed narration occasionally breaking through an otherwise overwhelmingly thick fog of despair. (Here, German poet Peter Handke’s gorgeous words from Wings of Desire come to mind: “When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging, wanted the brook to be a river, the river to be a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea…”)

To Jack, the world is still new—how much do most of us even remember from the years before we were five? A little, but not a lot, even if the experts say our personalities and cognitive development are largely shaped during those years. To Jack, for whom the shed should be everything, it isn’t. There is a vast, fast, changing, confusing world beyond the room he grew up in, where ordinary nouns were virtually identical to proper nouns: Plant, Desk, Lamp, Rug, and so forth. He has a chance to change—but his mother may not.

In the end, the film reminded me of nothing so much as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In the classic story, people are chained in a dark cave. All they have ever seen are the shadows of people coming and going, of things happening, cast against a wall. To them, the shadows are all they know of the world, all that really exists. One day, one person manages to escape from the cave and discovered a rich, three-dimensional world full of colors and shapes, sights, sounds, and smells. He comes back to the cave and attempts to tell the others, but they don’t want to hear.

For Jack, the television is the same as the shadows. He sees people, places, objects, animals, and plants, which as far as he knows are as real as dark outlines on the wall—which is to say, not real. All Ma could tell him is that things like trees and oceans weren’t real because there wasn’t enough room for them. Their room was the limits of the known universe. When she decides to tell him the truth when he’s five, the boy predictably rebels—the way that most of us do when we are greeted with contradictory, unwelcome information. He rejects it. “This story”—the most important story in the world—“is boring,” Jack says. “This is the story you get,” the mother tells her son.

All parents make up stories to help their children understand the world before they are fully ready to do so, and some tales are taller than others. Ma did what she felt she had to do make sense of an incomprehensible situation for her son, which is something many mothers can probably relate with, even if their own circumstances are not quite so dire and extreme.

The problem for Ma is that she is not just someone who escaped the cave. She wasn’t always in the cave. She knew there was a bigger world because she had been there. Unlike the people in Plato’s allegory, she didn’t have to leave to know what she was missing . And in some sense she will never escape the cave. For a small child, though, the limits of the world are far harder to find.

Note: I had already written about my favorite films of 2015 before seeing Room, but it easily shoots to the top of the list, rivaling the likes of Inside Out and Carol.