CLAUSTROPHOBIA – Room and The 33


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Warning: SPOILERS

 

room 1Room, the new somewhat minimalist film written by Emma Donoghue (from her own novel) and directed somewhat minimally by Lenny Abrahamson (who also was responsible for cult fave Frank), is, like such movies as Vertigo and Boogie Nights, a before and after film, a movie in which something happens about midway through that divides the story into two neat little parts.

 

For Room, the first half dramatizes the story of a character called Ma and her six year old son, Jack. Seven years earlier, Ma was abducted and kept prisoner in a large garden shed by a bearded man called Old Nick. Jack was born into captivity and, in fact, does not know there is a world outside, having been told by Ma that there’s nothing on the other side of the four walls. Jack is so young, it simply doesn’t occur to him to ask that if that were so, then where does Old Nick come from each night when he visits, and where does he go when he leaves.

 

The second part dramatizes Ma and Jack’s escape (a very taught and edge of your seat set of scenes, even though you do also wonder why someone who is as clever as Old Nick in setting up the shed could also be so stupid) and what happens when Ma and Jack rejoin the outside world.

 

There’s much to like here, mainly in the first half of the film. These scenes have a certain unnerving quality that really get to you at times. You find yourself in Ma’s place trying to figure out what you would do in her situation, easily empathizing with her fear and frustration. And there’s a fascinating scene where in preparation for trying to escape, Ma now has to convince Jack that there really is a whole world out there, as real as their world inside the shed, a concept he naturally has difficulty grasping.

 

The second half doesn’t quite come up to the level of that which proceeds it. It’s not that there aren’t some fine and even moving moments, such as when a stranger comes to Jack’s aide and threatens to call the police, whereupon Old Nick, without missing a beat, drops Jack to the ground with the cliché, a dull, sickening thud; or when Jack makes a friend and calmly goes out to play as if he’s always been a normal child; or when a TV journalist asks a cruel and painful question of Ma while the cameras are rolling.

 

But unfortunately, the second half is also filled with arguments and confrontations that feel borrowed from a million films and television shows that have gone before. Sometimes, to be ruthlessly honest, they are even cringe worthy because you can see them coming.

 

room 2This also causes the cast to stumble at times. Brie Larson as Ma is perfectly fine in the first half, but in the second, her acting feels as restricted by the dialog as her character was in the shed. Even veteran performers like Joan Allen and Bill Macy (playing husband and wife again as they did in Pleasantville-well, ex-husband, they are now divorced), can’t do much with the material they are given.

 

Still, the second half does have a few remarkable moments that at times lift the film above what it is. Jack is given some beautiful voice over monologues that show us what perhaps the whole movie could have been. It’s only these moments that give the movie whatever transcendence it has.

 

The actor who plays Jack is Jacob Tremblay. He’s the one who actually carries the whole picture on his tiny little shoulders and keeps the whole thing from falling apart.

 

With Sean Bridges of Rectify as Old Nick; Amanda Brugel of Orphan Black as a bulldog of an officer; and Tom McCamus, also of Orphan Black, as Leo.

 

33 1The 33, the ripped from the headlines story about a mine disaster that trapped a group of workers underground for a number of months, has in its cast such actors as Juliet Binoche, Gabriel Byrne, Lou Diamond Phillips and Antonio Banderas playing Chileans while employing various accents to varying success (it’s probably Phillips best performance, maybe Binoche’s worst). It also has James Brolin, but at least he’s allowed to speak his mother tongue.

 

Hey, if it’s good enough for Exodus: Gods and Kings…

 

If that were The 33’s only issue, we’d be on solid ground (unlike the characters in the movie). But The 33 is a film that simply doesn’t work almost from the beginning, and it really starts losing air about the same time the miners do.

 

The screenplay is by committee (four writers are credited, plus Hector Tobar, who provided the source material in his book The Deep Down Dark) and feels like it, and the direction is by Patricia Riggen, who doesn’t do all that much with the material. Of course, one has to sympathize with all concerned. How does one even begin to satisfyingly dramatize a true story like this when so much creativity is restricted by a narrative that can’t really be changed all that much. It’s always far more difficult to write something where the characters are determined by circumstances and by plot over one where the circumstances and plot are determined by characters.

 

One of the few movies to ever succeed on terms like this is United 93, in which writer/director Paul Greengrass didn’t even try to dramatize the story, but simply had it play out as it happened, almost documentary like. And if the producers of The 33 had taken this approach, they might have been able to make something of the material.

 

Instead, the film never rises above what it is and sometimes doesn’t even reach the level of fictional disasters like Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.

 

There’s even a group hug toward the end, which, as far as I’m concerned, says it all.

 

33 2Besides Phillips, the best performances are given by Rodrigo Santoro (who is to play Christ in the upcoming Ben Hur, so this role is actually good preparation) as Laurence Golborne, a government bureaucrat who acts out of a sense of moral duty, and Bob Gunton as President Pinera, who reluctantly agrees to throw the whole weight of the government behind the rescue operation when he is convinced that if the miners are saved, it will be a great political coup.

 

 

 

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