In film criticism, there’s a guiding light that I try to stand by: review the film in front of you, not the film you wish you’d seen. That doesn’t mean that you can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t discuss a film’s failings. It’s just that you don’t put onto a film what you wanted it to be. This becomes extraordinarily difficult when a film with such incredible potential squanders it in favor of cheap horror tricks and misogyny. Frustratingly, that’s Christian Volckman’s (Renaissance) The Room in a nutshell. The premise involves a couple purchasing a home which contains a secret room capable of giving them anything they ask for — jewels, clothes, fine foods, and cash — the kind of wish fulfillment that offers a grand jumping off point for some provocative personal examination via delicious self-punishment from greed. Even more so, the story takes an emotional turn when the protagonists at the center of the story begin to turn on each other over the creation of a child. With each rising action, The Room creates new opportunities for something deep and ethically interesting. Vexingly, all of this is squandered at nearly every turn.
No film is totally, completely without merit, so let’s dig into the good stuff first. Volckman’s direction is frequently engaging in the way it communicates intent in concert with the performances. In the opening moments of the film, for instance, the first images the audiences see are of the house: first in totality and then in pieces in the interior, each image beginning fuzzy before a clear focus takes hold. This definitively tells us that the house, and, more specifically the room, is the focal point of the entire film. Not the people, not the events which transpire, but the house. It holds all the cards and its rules are what create the world of the narrative. This is key and it’s something that the execution of the narrative tricks the audience into forgetting until they’re well into the film. This allows Volckman to play with the nature of truth and reality in quite a few fun ways. Then there’s the room itself, inexplicably powered by a machine wired throughout the house like roots from a tree made impervious to time. It’s quite mythic in its presentation and is entirely mysterious. Smartly, the process of its function and its origin are accepted without exploration because, in truth, it’s irrelevant to the narrative. It is a thing that exists, performing otherworldly feats with ease. While the mystery of the room incites within the audience a deep desire to explore what makes the room tick, the film is made more powerful by not giving it any kind of concreteness or grounding in reality. An explanation would take so much of the wonder away from it and the film is better served by not wasting time on it. The last strength is in the performances from leads Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and Kevin Janssens (Revenge) as Kate and Matt, the soon-to-be beleaguered owners of the house. Each character is put through their own personal hell and the actors each present moments which compel the audience to both root for and against them, depending on the conflict shown in the film. Considering how frequently the narrative bats them about individually, it’s impressive that the actors own their respectively roles so clearly that any discussion of the characters tends to shift based on which moment in the film you’re examining.
Where The Room goes off the rails is in the details. There are some things which an audience can forgive for the sake of the thrill of the story. As long as the rules within are sound, audiences can handle a little rule-bending. They may even accept some rule-breaking. When there appears to be an utter disregard for rules, the audience grows restless and even a bit insulted. Take the purchase of the house, as an example. As an audience, we can allow that maybe the house has an eccentric power supply within it, but was the house not inspected prior to purchase? How are the series of root-like wires running through the house unknown to the new owners? Not to mention the flagrant disregard for New York state property law when Matt discovers a murder took place in the house only after they’ve moved in. If the film doesn’t want to make explicit why they’ve moved from New York City and Europe (as specific as Matt gets when asked) to this remote area in New York state, that’s fine. The audience doesn’t need a reason, they’re new home owners. But the line of what’s acceptable begins to weaken almost from the outset with these two revelations. Then, of course, there’s the storyline of the child. Kate’s been pregnant twice before but the child hasn’t survived beyond a year, despite both she and Matt as having no diagnosable reproductive issues. This is a topic of great pain for Kate, yet, without any warning, Matt builds her a baby’s room as a gesture of support and encouragement, which, understandably, sends her reeling. This is but one of several moments which clue the audience to the fact that this couple does not communicate with each other well. Do they love each other? Absolutely, without question. But they don’t communicate and it becomes all the more clear when Matt’s little gesture pushes Kate to create a child via the room. There’s an interesting nugget of a notion about what constitutes life versus the simulation of one, but it all gets overshadowed by making Kate’s value from this point forward as either sexual object or mother. When the two become conflated, The Room becomes downright disgusting, not because it challenges the audience, but because it utilizes a common trope of violence against women as a narrative tool when the film so clearly contains ideas that are far more interesting. Grabbing onto such low hanging fruit to create stress and drama is uninspired and anger-inducing. When you add in a series of nonsensical moments, the details fail to support one another and the film falls apart.
On paper, The Room should be an engaging, compelling story. The concept is an interesting modern monkey’s paw, the actors possess great chemistry, and the ending is entirely horrific. Yet, in its conclusion, the audience is left maddened by an inventive film which is not sustained in its totality. I’m sure there’s an audience for The Room, many of whom came to it via streaming horror service Shudder, and these folks will delight in being able to own the film. That’s fantastic for Volckman, a director who’s pushed boundaries once before and does solid work here. Can only hope the next project fires on all cylinders and doesn’t leave the audience inadequately satisfied.
No bonus features available at the time for review.
Available for streaming on Shudder beginning March 12th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital beginning July 21st, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.