‘The Immaculate Room’ review: 50 days in a white room for $5 million
You could call “The Immaculate Room” the ultimate lockdown movie, or maybe the spa version of “Saw.” It is a classy, austere and at times provocative tabloid thriller in which Kate (Kate Bosworth) and Mikey (Emile Hirsch), in a mysterious contest, agree to spend 50 days living in a large bare white room. When they first enter, they are greeted by a Siri voice, British and feminine, which makes ritual declarations like “It is evening. Enjoy your stay in the Immaculate Room. If they pass the 50 days, they will receive $5 million in prize money. (If only one of them succeeds, the reward is reduced to $1 million.) It doesn’t seem so difficult, like two months in voluntary prison minus the dirt and danger. And that’s the hook: Who wouldn’t do this for $5 million? But the fact that it seems so doable means audiences are wondering from minute one: what’s the problem?
In a fun way, “The Immaculate Room” is a parable of boredom, making it a story for our time. Kate and Mikey have a flat, white bed to sleep in, but most of the time they have white walls and nothing else. The place looks like an empty art museum gallery (you can barely see the Gerhard Richter paintings allegedly hanging there) or an unfurnished boutique condo designed by Steve Jobs. A small milk container marked FOOD sits in its slot like an Apple product. In the container is a gooey tasteless liquid: food devoid of pleasure. “Not exactly Shake Shack,” Mikey said after taking a sip. Eating is not fun, but more than that, there is no diversion. In prison, you can read a book. “The Immaculate Room” is a movie made for a world of people who are deathly addicted to entertainment asking: what if you don’t have any? Would it gradually drive you crazy?
So what is there to interest the public? For starters, two high-spirited actors in designer surgical gowns (olive green for her, rust for him) star in Kate and Mikey’s soap opera. Hirsch, more dynamic than he was before, makes Mikey a spoiled, surly hipster kid of an artist with a chip on his shoulder about his vegan lifestyle. He seems to resent others, but when he finds an insect in the room, he desperately tries to feed and feed it. Bosworth’s Kate is more modest, grounded and controlling. She begins each day with a twelve-step prayer (“My name is Katherine Frith and today is my day”) and meditates in the Sukhasana position. But she’s a New Age materialist. She wants that $5 million and pledges to do whatever it takes to get it.
The two have a troubled relationship, and entering this contest appears to be their attempt to heal it. Talk about a doomed plan! As soon as we learn that the contest was devised by a billionaire scientist, Professor Voyenne (if this film were the least Spartan version of itself, it would appear on a video screen and be played by Woody Harrelson), we realize that Kate and Mikey are guinea pigs in a Skinner box who live out someone’s idea of a behavior modification experiment.
There are times in “The Immaculate Room” where we feel like both of them: stuck in a land of nothing, wondering how we’re going to make it through the next moment and the next. But the film’s writer-director, Mukunda Michael Dewil, knows he can’t make a drama out of monotony falling victim to the mistake of imitation. So he introduces external elements, which is a nice way of saying he’s cheating. Kate and Mikey are allowed to buy two “treats”, surprise packages that will relieve boredom. They’re expensive (the first slashes the prize money by $100,000, the second by $250,000), and the first freebie is just a… green pencil. (For Mikey the artist, it’s a giveaway.) But the treats get wilder from there. At one point, a gun appears out of nowhere. It should have come in another Apple box, this one labeled “Chekhov’s Pistol”.
“The Immaculate Room” begins as a parable of boredom and ends as a parable of greed. Yet, ironically, it’s more interesting when it is on boredom. When it turns into “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” remade into claustrophobic reality TV, it becomes mundane. In the end, the audience must answer the question posed to the characters: do we care more about the $5 million or about them? I admit that I ended up with the wrong answer.