Jack’s world is Room. Its four walls hold all there is, all there was, all that will ever be.
A bathtub. A bed. A toilet. Pictures and books and even a TV—things that show him made-up wonders like trees and seas, mythical creatures like dogs and cats. Ma’s in Room, too, of course. Feeding him, washing him, singing to him.
Outside? Jack doesn’t know the meaning. Room is all there is. It has been for his whole five-year life. And yet, there is … something. The “window” in Room’s ceiling changes colors—blue and gray, white and black. A mouse sometimes appears and then vanishes again, who knows how or why.
Old Nick also arrives and departs. When Jack and Ma hear the high, electronic beeps, the little boy knows to run to his wardrobe, where he sleeps, and close the door behind him. Through the slats in that door, Jack hears Old Nick talk. He knows that he brings Ma groceries. That he visits Ma’s bed like Jack does sometimes, only Nick makes the springs creak and groan. But Jack has never seen Nick. Ma always sends him away to sleep as soon as Old Nick comes. So he only hears him. Smells him. Feels the air rush around him when he moves.
“I don’t know if he’s real,” Jack says to himself. “Maybe half.”
But then one night, Nick brings Jack a present, which Jack sees the next morning. “I never had a present,” Jack gasps. And when Old Nick visits next and the window in the ceiling is cold and black, Jack sneaks out of the wardrobe, steals to the side of the bed and looks at Nick. And Nick opens his eyes.
“Don’t touch him!” Ma screams, hitting and clawing at Nick with all her strength. “Don’t touch him!”
Like a beast, a leviathan from the depths of an unnamed ocean, Old Nick rises up, smacks Ma down and presses his hands around her throat. He snarls and growls curses as Jack sprints toward the wardrobe and shuts the door.
The next morning, Jack wakes and can see his breath. Ma says Nick turned the power off. It’s a warning. And Ma decides it’s time to tell Jack a new story—one so incredible, so unbelievable, that Jack refuses to believe.
There’s life outside Room, Ma says. The things he’s seen on TV—trees and homes and cats and dogs and other people—are real. They’re not just images on a screen.
“No way!” Jack says. “Where do they all fit?!”
Ma explains patiently that there’s a whole world out there, a whole reality that Jack will love—once they leave. Ma says she never told him any of this before because he was too little. But now that he’s 5—practically a man—it’s time. It’s time to think about life outside Room.
Jack doesn’t know what to think. It’s all so terrifying, wonderful, unreal, impossible.
“I want to be 4 again,” he says sadly.
Jack really struggles to comprehend that there could be life outside Room. “Where’s all that stuff you said, leaves and trees and grass and cats?” he asks Ma, incredulous. But as frightening as the mere concept of life beyond his confinement might be for a little boy who’s never known anything else, Ma has more terror in store for him: Not only is there a whole world outside, but they’re going to trick Old Nick and escape to find it. And to do that, Jack will need to be very, very brave. He will need to save his mother.
That’s a role with which Jack’s familiar. Before he came, Ma admits that she spent her time in Room staring at the television, hopeless and helpless. Jack gave Ma life again. And when they do escape and Ma struggles to adjust, it’s Jack who helps pull her out of her depression. “You saved me again,” Ma tells him.
But Ma, whose name is Joy, is Jack’s source of strength, too. She instills in him a positive attitude and makes their constricted lives as full and as interesting as she can—encouraging him to engage in crafts and songs and books and even cooking. She’s a great mom under unimaginably difficult circumstances.
And then, of course, there’s the support structure that both of them find once they make their escape. Life outside Room is not easy, but Joy’s mother and her new significant other come alongside, exuding patience and love—even when Jack and Joy, in their own ways, can’t accept that love. Doctors, police officers and even strangers also play into this ultimately salvific story.
One day, Jack wants to give his mother a little help and asks for his grandma’s help to do it. “Will my strong be her strong, too?” he asks.
“No one is strong alone,” Grandma answers.
Joy must’ve had a Christian upbringing, because she teaches Jack about the Bible. He, in turn, talks about God regularly. When he’s outside in the rest of the wide world, he at first refuses to cut his hair, believing that it makes him strong like Samson. When he does agree to have it cut, he sends the strands to his mother, believing she needs their strength more than he does. Jack also describes his own “creation” in the way his mother always told him: that he was sent down from heaven to save her.
Interestingly, this is a story that Joy continues to cling to even after the escape. When she suffers through an in-depth television interview, she insists that her captor had nothing to do with Jack. “Jack is nobody’s but mine,” she says. This allusion to a virgin birth—doggedly delusional as it may be in this case—again draws our attention to Jack’s role as Joy’s physical and spiritual savior, an embodiment of innocence in the very fallen world of Room—under the dominion of Old Nick, whose name is a fairly ancient nickname for Satan himself.
During the interview, Joy is told, essentially, that there must’ve been times when she felt like God had deserted her. She insists that she never gave up hope.
We learn that Joy was abducted at 17, and that Old Nick uses her as a sex slave. Because the movie is told from Jack’s point of view, we don’t see him rape Joy. But, along with Jack, listening as he does through the slats in the wardrobe, we hear the groaning, squeaking sounds of the bed. One of Joy’s shirts doesn’t hide much.
As mentioned, when Joy lashes out at Nick for nearly touching Jack, her captor hits and chokes her, leaving her throat a mass of bruises. He turns off the power, hoping the cold will teach his captive pliancy. We hear that, before Jack came, Joy tried to escape by smashing a toilet tank lid on Nick’s head.
[Spoiler Warning] As part of her desperate escape plan, Joy has Jack pretend to be dead—a victim of the cold—and rolls him up in a heavy carpet. Jack and the carpet are then transported to the back of Nick’s truck for disposal. But the boy has been instructed to wriggle free and hop out when Nick stops for a stop sign or light. He does, on the third stop, prompting Nick to run after him. Catching him, Nick wrestles the tyke back toward the truck. He finally lets go and pushes Jack to the ground when a stranger threatens to call the police. Equally traumatic, Joy—free now but deeply struggling with guilt and pain and the idea that she’s lost so much of her youth—attempts suicide. She takes a bottle of pills, and Jack finds her unconscious on the bathroom floor.
Ten f-words. One use of “b–ch.” God’s name is misused three or four times, Jesus’ name twice.
Wine and scotch are consumed.
In an effort to make it look like Jack’s really sick, Joy forces herself to retch, then smears the stuff on her son’s face and pillow. Later, we see vomit on a bathroom floor. Jack talks about feces and how great it is that toilets can make it go away. There’s a discussion about passing gas. Joy has a bad tooth, and she eventually plucks it from her mouth—showing Jack the decay.
Shortly after Joy and Jack escape from Room, the two have their first dinner with Joy’s family—Grandma, Grandpa and Grandma’s new beau, Leo. We know that Grandma and Grandpa are divorced, and so dinner might’ve been a little awkward anyway. But it’s clear, as they all eat in strained silence, that there’s more to it than that.
And then when Joy speaks, suddenly, we know.
“Dad,” she says, “look at him. Look at him.”
Grandpa can’t. He can’t look at Jack.
For seven years, Grandpa’s little girl was missing—taken by a monster and made to suffer through unspeakable, unsaid things. Now, miraculously, she’s back. But in Grandpa’s view, she’s got part of the monster with her—a 5-year-old reminder of the atrocity.
For five years, Ma and Jack had lived in their own little world and managed to find, together, a piece of heaven in its hellishness. When Ma looks at Jack, all she can see is blessing. Grandpa imagines a curse. If only he would just look at him. Just see.
Room is, like Jack, a complicated creature. It is rated R, thanks to its smattering of harsh language and its submersion into very adult, very difficult themes. Room can be crass and crude and incredibly uncomfortable to see. Room is also a thing of beauty—as inspiring a movie and, frankly, as Christian a story as I’ve encountered in some time.
Jack, the product of rape, resides among the most persuasive pro-life arguments ever brought to screen. And we see how this boy—a gift from heaven, we’re told—came into a world of sin controlled by a devil and, in his innocence and through his sacrifice, saved a woman named Joy.
A woman who says, Look at him, and perhaps, Look at Him.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.