The pleasure of those careful-what-you-wish-for “Twilight Zone” episodes and the riffs that followed is in watching the protagonists react realistically to an impossible situation. That’s not the case for the two leads of French director Christian Volckman’s English-language debut “The Room,” where Olga Kurylenko and Kevin Janssens defy all rational human behavior after discovering a room in their house can offer them any material thing they ask for. Including a human child. While the film suffers from a screenplay as delusional as its characters, this thriller serves up some potent images and a juicy premise, part Richard Kelly’s “The Box,” and part Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice,” in cautioning against playing god to fill the void.
Childless couple Kate (Kurylenko) and Matt (Janssens) have moved from the big city to a gothic Victorian mansion in rural Maryland as dilapidated as Miss Havisham’s grotesque stomping grounds in “Great Expectations.” Paint’s peeling, wallpaper’s a mess, and the insides are covered in the rusty patina of decay. But they’re keen on repairing the house so Matt, a painter, can work on his art in seclusion. It’s not clear what drove them out of New York, except for a heavy piece of emotional baggage revealed later.
Matt finds a hidden chamber upstairs, concealed by wallpaper and a steel door. The room is empty, and the discovery triggers electrical outages throughout the house. With the help of an electrician, they find, in the bowels of their home and running under the floorboards, an enormous tangled mass of wiring that’s incredibly foreboding, and an unsettling piece of set design. The electrician, a cranky local who’s seen a thing or two, drops the spooky (and predictable) bomb that the previous owners were murdered 45 years ago.
At the end of a night of solo drinking in the room, Matt says aloud, as a person in real life certainly would, “I need another bottle.” The lights flicker, blackness descends. Once power is restored, Matt finds at his feet a fresh bottle of whiskey. Your wish is my command, the room seems to say. This uncanny conjuring of booze surfaces the revelation that the room has the power to give you whatever you want. Giddy with the possibilities, Kate and Matt are soon reveling in piles of cash, elegant clothes, gorgeous food, and champagne, which Matt licks off the floor in a montage of debauchery. They take this phenomenon in unbelievably hasty stride. But portent looms when Kate questions the room’s potential, telling Matt, “If it’s like a computer, computers get bugs.”
Unfortunately, the party’s over once Kate asks the room for a baby. Voila, a flesh-and-blood infant boy appears, much to Matt’s horror and insistence it’s not actually a child, but “a thing.” But Kate’s cool with this supernaturally produced boy. The child, due to a caveat of the room’s magic powers best left unspoiled, starts rapidly aging. It’s not a pretty picture, but mom is unfazed, tumbling into a trancelike stupor, teaching the boy the ABCs and cooking him breakfast like it’s NBD. This won’t end well.
Despite the hokum and utter insanity of the protagonists, “The Room” gets a lift in its second half, delivering some crazy hairpin twists. One of the film’s strongest sequences sees the room transformed into the outside world, propelling Matt into rooms within rooms, bound to encounter his doppelgänger, and surely worse.
The characters’ stupidity will have you screaming at the screen. As tangled as those current-carrying cords that climb up and down the guts of the home, the screenplay is at odds with what it wants to be. A domestic drama, a bad-seed horror movie, a science-fiction metaphor, and a morality play? It’s messily executed. The actors aren’t confident enough to carry the swings in tone. Blame the blunt, expository dialogue that plays as if translated from another language. “Why did I marry an artist?” Kate asks, flinging herself into her husband’s arms. Good question. Once she starts boarding up the windows to hem in her disturbed kid (played at various ages by Joshua Wilson and Francis Chapman), well, god help this woman.
Still, the movie’s back end is a sick romp, and sometimes thrilling. Things hit a problematic wall with a sexual assault that exists simply to shock you. The idea that the very thing you nurtured out of love while thinking it was totally chill to play god could then suddenly turn on you runs amok in Volckman’s movie. Kate and Matt hurtle toward material selfishness without considering the consequences, even despite whispered omens from the nutcase who murdered the home’s previous family, and who now lives in the psych ward down the road. No matter how desperate you are to have a family, if a room in your house conjures a kid out of thin air at your behest, you’d better have a good reason not to run screaming into the hills. These people don’t.
The origins of the room in question are never explained, which is half the intrigue, but mostly the frustration. The core conceit is enough to make “The Room” a not entirely wasted ride. Still, enter with care. It’s a mixed bag, but upon exit, it somehow runs through the mind.
“The Room” is now available to stream on VOD platforms and Shudder.
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