Room: A Powerful and Disturbing Film

ROOM[Warning: Spoilers ahead :)]

A Powerful Film

At the behest of a Facebook friend, I watched the movie Room starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay (among several other seasoned Hollywood actors). The movie is about a young woman named Joy and her son Jack who escape from a garden shed in which they were being held hostage by a man they call “Old Nick.” Old Nick kidnapped Joy (played by Brie Larson), whom he raped and verbally and physically abused. Jack (played by Jacob Tremblay) is the product of Old Nick’s rape.

The story is very moving, detailing the psychological difficulties involved in coming to grips with the real world (i.e. the world outside of the garden shed, which Jack calls “room”). Joy suffers deeply from depression and attempts to kill herself. Jack struggles with trusting anyone besides his mother, behaving in many ways like a wounded small animal. Ironically, the confined space of “room” is something that Jack actually comes to miss, seeing as the outside world is constantly moving and changing unpredictably. In the real world, one is not restricted to such a small space, nor to the rules and regulations imposed upon them by “Old Nick.” Indeed, as his mother tells him once they have escaped: “There are no rules.” This freedom is at times too much for the two of them to bear, but in the end they overcome thanks in part to the love and support of Jack’s grandma and her boyfriend. Jack eventually revisits “room” one last time at the end of the film in order to say goodbye to it, seemingly no longer feeling any attachment to it. He and his mom are free from Old Nick’s twisted prison-house, and they have nothing to fear.

A Disturbing Gnostic Allegory

Room seems pretty straight forward, but the details show that this film is a cleverly disguised Gnostic allegory. This may  seem like a strange thing to say, but there are some obvious indications that this is the case. I will expound upon them briefly in what follows.

  1. The Evil Creator: Joy and Jack are prisoners of a man named “Old Nick,” a name which historically has been used to reference the devil. Old Nick is the keeper of the prison-house/garden shed which has one small source of light (a skylight) and whose only access to the real world outside is television programming, images representing a reality Jack doesn’t believe exists. Note that Old Nick is a name for the devil, and Jack is a generic name for man/mankind, giving us, albeit in a veiled manner, the following scenario: An evil creator has enslaved his creation (man/mankind) in a garden/prison in which his creation only has access to representations of the real reality outside of his grasp. The gnostics identified the creator of humanity as the evil demiurge,[1] whom they “demonize…and even call…by the name of the devil.”[2]

Emma Donoghue, the author and screenwriter of Room, in fact, states that she wrote in such a way as to portray “Old Nick as the Devil,”[3] Jack as “Adam,”[4] and Joy as “Eve.”[5]

  1. The Representational World vs. Reality: In the above outlined scenario, we see that Jack only has access to real reality via television. This closely parallels Plato’s famous allegory of the Cave in which

Plato likens people untutored in [his metaphysical theory about Real reality/Ultimate Reality] to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire.  Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see.”[6]

Following Plato’s doctrinal lead, the Gnostics also taught that the world is comprised of shadows pointing beyond themselves to a real reality in which humans are absolutely free from the restrictions of the evil demiurge, the devil or Old Nick. In Room, television is a representation of reality whose stories can fluctuate between what is real and what is absolutely fantastical. The only reality he knows is a world of strict regulations governing his every move, a world where the TV’s representations of reality do not correspond to anything he has experienced. Joy tells her son about this distinction between life in the shed/cave and life outside of the shed/cave, but as he has only known the reality of living in the garden shed he does not believe she is telling the truth. His hostile and irrational response to his mother’s revelation of the outside world mirrors the reaction of Plato’s hypothetical cave dweller who is liberated to see the outside world. Socrates:

“…let’s imagine…what freedom from their chains would be like. Suppose one of the chained people, a man, was released and immediately forced to stand up and look toward the light. […] What do you suppose this man would say if someone told him that he’d only been looking at shadows and now he was seeing real things? And how would the man reply if he were asked to describe the nature of these real things [the shadows of which he’d been looking at all his life]? Wouldn’t he feel at a loss? And wouldn’t he be tempted to think that what he’d looked at all his life must be truer than what he’s seeing right now?…what if someone were to drag that man up to the light, forcing him through a steep and rugged ascent into the light itself—where he couldn’t see anything and his eyes hurt? Wouldn’t the man be distressed, even angry? And wouldn’t he be unable to see anything, even what was being presented to him as the truth of things?”[7]

When asked if the story has “potentially Gnostic implications,”[8] Donoghue replied:

Definitely. Actually, in the film, that bit where Jack’s spending the day on his own, and he’s suddenly discovering the shadow of his hand on the wall? Lenny was saying that’s his little Plato’s Cave moment. He’s like, “Oh, that’s a shadow of my hand, so there must be something outside that makes the shadow.[9]

This is an understatement, of course, but an admission nonetheless of the story’s grounding gnosticism.

  1. Escaping the World of Representations: Jack’s only means of escape is death. Knowing that Old Nick would dispense of Jack’s body if Jack played dead, Joy has her son lay motionless in a rolled up carpet. Old Nick falls for the trick, sees the need to dispense of the body and, consequently, loads the carpet into his truck. As he is driving off to find a place where he can bury Jack, the boy unrolls the carpet and flees on foot. Old Nick tries to catch him, but a stranger walking a dog sees the fear in Jack’s eyes and tries to help by calling the police. Whereas Jack’s initial experience of the world beyond the garden shed is intellectual, eliciting a hostile and irrational response from him, this ultimate experience of the real world involves his whole being. Through death, i.e. the faking of his own death, Jack escapes the confines of the garden shed/prison-house and gains access to the world he only had access to through television and the stories of his mother. Similarly, Gnostics taught that the death of the physical body, the prison-house of the soul, resulted in the soul’s liberation from the tyranny of the demiurge. “The goal,” says Michael Horton, “was to return to the spiritual, heavenly, and divine unity of which their inner self is a spark, away from the realm of earthly time, space, and bodies.”[10] It is by death that one escapes the world of representations, the world of creaturely enslavement, and enters real reality. So too with Jack: Through his [faked] death, Jack is liberated from the garden shed, liberated from its restrictive and suppressive rules, free to experience the lawless world which Old Nick selfishly kept him.

Why Do I Mention These Things?

As a student of literature, I am sensitive to how stories are structured. Stories have layers of meaning that are deliberately placed there by authors. Those in which a specific problem-solution scenario is very clearly spelled out while the main characters bear meaning-laden generic names (e.g. Jack, Joy, Ma, Old Nick) and the other characters are somewhat unidimensional props to the greater story of how the problem-solution scenario unfolds are very often allegorical. Stories, on the other hand, in which the problem-solution structure is more difficult to suss out, usually due to the complexity of the characters involved, are not allegorical. There may be symbolism in the latter kind of story, but it will be difficult to identify any specific character as the representation of a particular class of people, or as a virtue (contrast this with the obvious symbolism of “Jack” and “Joy,” respectively). When watching Room I couldn’t help being bothered by the elements I’ve mentioned just now: the story was more concerned with the broader themes of imprisonment/liberation and representation/reality, it’s most developed characters (Jack and Joy) were developed only as extensions of the broader themes mentioned already, and the remaining characters were nameless and unidimensional, serving as props to the overall themes.

After having reflected on the course of events in the film, the names in the film, and the similarities between it and Plato’s allegory of the Cave, I understood why I was simultaneously moved to tears and disturbed. Room is a very well made film. The acting is amazing. The score is fitted perfectly to the film’s progression. Additionally, the film openly affirms that the children of rape are just as worthy of love as children of a legitimate marriage. Yet what ruins these beautiful aspects of the film is its equally strong gnostic themes. What the writers and producers give with one hand, they take away with the other.

I mention these things, then, to draw out the Christian reader’s attention to the a number of things that are often lost when those who talk about Gnosticism hidden in movies are being labeled “conspiracy theorists.” In the first place, Satan comes as an angel of light. Room is an emotionally gripping film that conceals a blasphemous set of teachings. Secondly, although films may have themes that are present in the Scriptures, the treatment of those themes are vastly different in each case. The Scriptures and Room are dramatically at odds with one another as regards the nature of the creator, the nature of rules, what it means to be a free human being, the essential nature of men as evil/loveless/etc, and so on. The world’s ideas of liberty and imprisonment are not the same as God’s ideas. Thirdly, aesthetics matters. Every detail of a story is significant in one of two ways: (a.)the author of the story intended to use it for a particular purpose, (b.)the author of a story neglected to develop or include a certain detail. The generic/symbolic names of Jack, Joy, and Old Nick exemplify this rather clearly, as does the absence of names for many of the other supporting characters is as well. A bad storyteller loses control over his narrative; a good storyteller controls his narrative’s direction through the use or neglect of details of his narrative.

Apologetically, understanding how a story is structured for effect or for meaning helps us scrutinize worldviews with more precision. Aesthetics is not an illogical, irrational, or a-rational endeavor but a kind of persuasive “argument” intended to communicate a matter of importance to its viewers. We can learn to understand the way in which an artist is trying to communicate a message, analyze the message, and tear down every high thing that raises itself up against the knowledge of Christ. The worldviews we  meet in popular art – music, film, literature – are not benign, and it is our duty to expose and refute them. Film can be a point of conversation in day to day engagements with unbelievers. We can use them as examples of the imago dei in man, man’s longing for meaning, as well as demonstrating man’s sometimes overt and sometime covert hatred of God and his Christ.

-Soli Deo Gloria.

-h.

*When I wrote my analysis of the gnostic themes present in the film, I had not yet come across Donoghue’s interview.


[2]  Birger A. Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity (Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2006), 100.

[3][http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2015/10/exclusive-room-screenwriter-emma-donoghue-on-the-role-that-the-news-her-family-her-research-into-autism-and-her-religious-background-played-in-shaping-the-story.html.]

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[10] “Your Own Personal Jesus,” Modern Reformation vol. 17 no. 3, May/June (2008): 14-20.

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2 thoughts on “Room: A Powerful and Disturbing Film

  1. Andi Garcia says:

    I did see this film also last week with my 10 year old son. He was very moved by it. He’s a bit mature for his age. I love the way you retold the story and broke it down. The structure of it. Very eye opening. :)

    Liked by 1 person

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