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Emma Donoghue’s novel—about the prolonged, claustrophobic abuse of a five-year old boy and his mother, as told by the tyke himself, followed by its traumatic aftermath—seems an unlikely tome for screen adaptation. But in the event, as adapted by the author herself and directed with sensitivity and skill by Lenny Abrahamson, “Room” proves a compelling film.

The picture falls into two distinct parts. In the first, Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) pass their days and nights in a small shack equipped with sink, toilet, microwave and a skylight but nothing else beside the bare essentials. The only door is equipped with a combination lock with the numbers known only to Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a bearded man who comes at night to bring food, but mostly to have sex with Joy. During those nocturnal sessions Jack, who’s just celebrated his fifth birthday, peers out at them from his bed inside a closet.

Much of this initial section of the film is devoted to the close, loving relationship between mother and child, punctuated by an occasional childish tantrum. But after sheltering Jack for half a decade, maintaining the illusion that their cubicle is all there is to the world, Joy tells him the truth: she was abducted by Nick seven years earlier and kept a prisoner in their “home,” his converted backyard garden shed. Jack finds it difficult to comprehend the implications of the revelation—after all, he’s never experienced the outside world—but eventually he accepts the truth, and she enlists him in an escape plan involving his pretending to fall seriously ill. That plan metastasizes into something far scarier, but it ultimately succeeds.

That leads to be film’s second chapter—in which Joy and Jack struggle to come to terms with the reality beyond the room that has been their whole world for so long. It’s a difficult process for Jack, for whom everything is entirely new and not a little frightening, and the film follows his coming out of his shell with care and feeling. In many respects, however, their liberation from confinement proves even more traumatic for Joy. She’s not only aware of what she’s missed and suffered in the meantime—which ultimately causes a psychological crisis—but has to deal with the fact that though her mother (Joan Allen) is fully supportive, she’s divorced and with a new partner, the likable Leo (Tom McCamus), who becomes a surrogate grandpa to the boy after Joy’s father (William H. Macy)—in a sequence that’s brutal in its abruptness—can’t bear even to look at the person who reminds him of his daughter’s torment. (It’s a plot thread that might profitably have been examined later on, but isn’t.) There are a few narrative elements that don’t quite work–an ill-advised television interview comes off as a stiff, clumsy send-up of “tell-it-all” programming. Still, the film ends on a note of hopefulness, with both mother and son ultimately confronting—and rising above—their ordeal.

Without intending any pun, “Room” is a small, confined film in physical terms, but emotionally it’s expansive and resonant. That’s due to Donoghue’s trenchant but understated screenplay, which keeps a sharp focus on the personal and the specific, and from Abrahamson’s sense of control and reserve; together they convey the power of the narrative without sensationalizing it in the style of a lurid telefilm.

But the impact of “Room” largely derives from the performances, especially the two leads. Larson has made a vivid impression in smaller roles a number of independent productions—“The Spectacular Now,” “Digging for Fire”—and a major one in “Short Term 12.” She surpasses that work here, however, with a heartbreaking depiction of parenthood under siege. Even more of a revelation is young Tremblay, who—presumably with strong guidance from Abrahamson—catches the changes in Jack’s personality with amazing insight. Macy is predictably forceful even if his character remains a bit of an enigma, and both Allen and McCamus exude gentle but firm humaneness. Bridgers, on the other hand, quietly completes the trilogy of scumbags that began with “The Best of Me” and continued with “Dark Places,” though here he creates a loathsome character in a more restrained manner than previously. The film is hardly innovative technically, but Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen make surprisingly good use of the anamorphic frame in the first, closed-in segment of the picture, and editor Nathan Nugent shows particular skill in Jack’s “escape” sequence.

Abrahamson seems to thrive on concepts that threaten disaster—a lead character who constantly wears a ludicrous mask in “Frank,” here a first act that traps two characters in a tiny space. But in both cases he overcomes what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle to achieve a result that almost makes you forget the limitations he’s embraced. This is a strong, remarkably acted tale of the bond between mother and child tested by the most extreme circumstances.


Although you might figure out the big final twist in “Goodnight Mommy” early on—which isn’t all that difficult to do, even if you haven’t seen Robert Mulligan’s 1972 adaptation of Thomas Tryon’s “The Other” to serve as a prompt—it will probably still fascinate you, as well as creep you out. When considered alongside the films of Michael Haneke and the novels of Thomas Bernhard—not to mention the recent Blu-ray issue of Gerald Kargl’s 1983 “Angst”—the thriller by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala suggests that there’s something very odd going on in the Austrian psyche.

The narrative line in the film is absurdly simple. After alluding to the notion of the “perfect” family with a shot of the Von Trapps singing a lullaby in harmony, the film introduces adolescent twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) having a game of tag in a cornfield near their starkly furnished modernist home. It’s situated in a rustic area where the boys also have access to a lake, forests and farmland. But they appear to be getting by on their own until their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns, her face swathed in bandages. Though the cause of her condition is initially unclear, it gradually appears that she’s a television personality who’s undergone cosmetic surgery to preserve her youthful look for the camera.

But the twins are suspicious. Their mother, it seems, has changed more than her face. Her personality is different as well—no longer the sweet, loving parent she once was, she spends most of her time resting in bed, demanding quiet and darkened rooms. And she makes a point of ignoring Elias. Most suggestively, while playing a game with the boys she fails to identify the person they’ve chosen for her to pretend to be—their mother. And so they come to believe that under the bandages she might be someone else. And since their father is absent—all the photos of him have been systematically pruned from the family scrapbooks—they can’t discuss their suspicions with him. Those same scrapbooks do contain, however, photos in which their mother appears with a woman who looks very much like her: could a malign switch have occurred?

Not that the twins seem particularly normal themselves. Although they show signs of compassion when they hide a stray cat in their room, they generally play ferociously, jumping frantically on a trampoline and hurling hailstones at one another. They collect large, ugly beetles in an aquarium. They trample inside a tomb filled with bones and skulls that can’t help but call the Holocaust to mind. And after an attempt to enlist the local priest in their concerns about their mother fails, they determine to take action themselves, using all means necessary to get the woman upstairs to prove she’s their mother or admit she’s not.

“Goodnight Mommy” gets quite gruesome at this juncture, but amidst the gore it has its share of nicely sustained suspense moments—most notably a visit by a couple of folks going door-to-door seeking Red Cross contributions—and however nasty the action becomes, it’s all filmed in lustrous widescreen 35mm (as emphasized in the closing credits) by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and cannily edited by Michael Palm.

The casting is also spot-on. The Schwarz twins seem normal on the surface, but they can suddenly turn sneaky and threatening. And Wuest manages to seem oddly sinister even with that bandaged face (think of Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man”) before becoming the target of the boys’ grim questioning. Together the three fashion a portrait of an attenuated family that goes far past conventional eccentricity; every one of them is a bit off from the start, and by the end all have become positively unhinged.

Unlike most of today’s cookie-cutter horror movies, “Goodnight Mommy” is a genuinely unsettling tale of domestic dysfunction grounded in natural, though unquestionably exaggerated, causes. Its big plot twist may not be all that surprising, but its coolly unnerving approach is certainly disturbing. It may even give you second thoughts about taking that vacation to Austria.