One woman’s retreat from life’s pressures and paranoia is the subject of “Room,” a perceptive, unsettling psychodrama marking the assured feature writing and directing debut of shorts filmmaker Kyle Henry. Evoking the minimalist domestic portraiture of Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” (with a little “Repulsion” thrown in for good measure), pic confidently navigates through a bleak portrait of George Bush’s America while offering a feast of a leading role to relative newcomer Cyndi Williams. Relentlessly (though necessarily) downbeat tone won’t make “Room” an easy fit commercially, but a strong festival future lies ahead.
Somewhere in the suburbs of Houston, Julia Barker (Williams) runs a morning newspaper route, makes breakfast for her husband and two kids, then sets off for her second (or rather, third) job as a hostess in a bingo hall — to which she nearly always shows up late. All the while, in the background of Julia’s life drones a steady whir of television and news reports informing of terrorist bombings, natural disasters and other terrifying acts of God and man. It’s the soundtrack of life at the dawn (and, some might argue, the imminent end) of the 21st century.
Julia starts to feel her life closing in on her. Suddenly, the meticulously waxed floors and carefully-ordered shelves of her neighborhood supermarket appear forbidding, while the omnipresent hum of power lines and glint of aluminum siding seem a waking nightmare. At the same time, Julia finds herself increasingly beset by visions of an empty industrial loft — address unknown — that beckons her toward it.
Julia impulsively robs the bingo safe and sets out from (not coincidentally) George Bush Airport on a cross-country odyssey in search of pic’s titular chamber, eventually landing in Queens. But while much of pic is taken up with Julia’s real-estate hunting, “Room’s” room is less an actual place than a state of mind — a feeling of sanctuary and calm. And as Julia makes her way across New York City, “Room” becomes a study in the myriad ways by which people escape to rooms of their own, from a cocaine high to a meditation-induced low.
The premise of “Room” might easily have devolved into a rote thriller or an oppressively symbolic allegory. Even as it is, pic periodically tries too hard to be mysterious and foreboding, affecting the self-consciously moody photography, ambient electronic music and formulaic sound montages of countless no-account Hollywood suspensers. But beneath that occasionally too-flashy exterior lies a deeply compelling character study in which ideas about self and society are married to a genuinely original curiosity about human behavior.
Henry has a special knack for capturing honest, unfettered moments of connection, between strangers flirting in a bar or old friends reunited in a park. And Williams — a stage actress whose prior film work has been limited to voice performances in Japanese anime pics — excels at playing such scenes. Trudging determinedly, yet unhurriedly, as though weighed down by her own disappointments and those of the world, she exudes a powerful magnetism.
Production values are modest, but effective, with pic’s many stark, underpopulated locations well servicing the general feel of physical and psychological displacement.