The Room is not known for its clarity. Character, plot, even camera focus are all unclear at times. It would be easy (and accurate) to put this down to the murky mind of its writer/director, Tommy Wiseau. The Room is the product of one man; a very confused and complicated man trying to tell a simple story. But as with all auteur cinema, The Room tells us more than the story of its characters, but also reveals the subconscious of its creator.
How far we want to go into Wiseau's dark underbelly is questionable, so here I will settle for examining the role of Lisa, the young female lead of The Room and future wife of Wiseau's proxy protagonist, Johnny. In the film, Johnny has a seemingly perfect life, but is betrayed by those closest to him and driven to despair. In this superficial reading (let's call that the Wiseau level), Johnny is the tortured hero and Lisa the evil and treacherous succubus. But Wiseau's storytelling shows us how blind he is to the inner workings of others, and how he only sees Lisa through the ultimate lens of the male gaze. But there is so much more to her...
Let's start with the basics. Lisa is young; her age is never specified but she appears to be in her early twenties, and 15-20 years younger than her partner Johnny. We also learn that they have been together for seven years. This means that when they first got together she was very young, and this goes a long way to explaining some of her actions. She is naïve. She is inexperienced in relationships and has been locked in one for so long that she doesn't know any different.
It's not hard to see how she got trapped in this life. Johnny is well-meaning, but is clearly controlling and domineering in a way that is not sitting well with Lisa. He professes his love for her but it is all very superficial. He provides for her; he is financially stable, he brings her gifts, flowers and dresses, that she gratefully accepts as if it is an every day occurrence. This is Johnny's (and Tommy Wiseau's) idea of being a good man. Strong and stable.
So what about the major role-model in Lisa's life – her mother. Lisa's mother is from a much closer generation to Johnny and seems to have similar opinions when it comes to relationships; but from a female perspective, of course. Her view is to find security and hang on to it until something better comes along. Feelings are secondary and unnecessary. But from Lisa's point of view, she can see that this lifestyle has not made her mother happy. She constantly complains about her ex-husbands and the problems they have caused her. She may have a comfortable life but it has not been a happy one. And now with the cancer diagnosis looming over her, Lisa only sees a dying woman who has never had any joy in life. Is that how she wants to go? If she follows her mother's advice and stays with Johnny then maybe she will end up the same way.
Lisa's mother is the first person she confides in. She is bored of her relationship with Johnny and doesn't love him anymore. To anyone in their early twenties who finds themselves in a serious relationship, this should not be considered unusual. Lisa is clearly not the sort of person who wants to settle down; she has had no youth, no rebellious period. She wants to have some fun and go a little wild before she gets married. This is hardly exceptional but her mother is not sympathetic. She enforces the ideas of security and stability. Lisa's emotional well-being is belittled in the face of superficiality. Lisa's instinct to leave is therefore further suppressed. And there are practical implications; Lisa can't provide for herself because she has become dependent on Johnny. She is trapped.
The very next scene shows us just how confused Lisa is. She calls up Mark, who appears to be an illicit lover (he is also Johnny's best friend, but we don't know that yet). Desperate for real emotional comfort, she has turned to one of the few people she has any contact with in her sheltered life. Unfortunately, Mark does not seem as emotionally engaged as Lisa would like him to be, but he's the best she's got and she's desperately searching for any kind of escape. Lisa wants to be strong and independent but she has been conditioned to look for comfort in others, as is apparent when she is talking to mark about her frustrations with her mother;
“She wants to control my life. I'm not going to put up with that. I'm going to do what I want to do and that's it. What do you think I should do?”
Has there ever been a more blatant example of a confused mind? I will do what I want to do; what do you think I should do? The desperation in her words is palpable. She is confused and lost. She desperately wants to escape Johnny and sees Mark as a way out. But take a look at the way she seduces him; it is clumsy and awkward and driven by sex. This is because she has learned from Johnny that this is the way to get what you want from a man. It is the only weapon she has left. When Mark, who has a very slightly stronger moral standing, rebuffs her advances and wants to leave, she becomes desperate, pleading;
“Please don't leave. Please don't leave! I need you! I love you.”
Even this doesn't work and she abandons the emotional rhetoric and switches back to sex. She finally seduces the reluctant Mark and this is a confirmation for her of what power she does have. Lisa is a strong, sexually dominant woman who has been pushed into a submissive role in her relationship. No wonder she is not happy. In the immediate post-coital regret, Lisa should learn that Mark is not going to be her escape as it is clear that he does not have any emotional attachment to her. But she doesn't know how else to define her desire to get away. For Lisa, the idea of rejecting Johnny with no one else to take his place is completely alien. How could she know any different with her mother as her only role-model?
This is not fair on Johnny, of course, but it is also clear from his behaviour that he is not open to an honest emotional conversation. When the opportunity arises, Johnny is in a morose mood due to some bad news at work. Lisa then encourages him to get drunk, something he is not accustomed to. This is an unusual thing to do, but it seems like there is good intent behind Lisa's actions. She thinks a drink or two will loosen Johnny up. Perhaps it is an attempt to soften him up so that she feels more confident about talking to him about her concerns. Perhaps it is a last ditch attempt to liven Johnny up and change their relationship as she repeatedly claims that Johnny and her life with him is boring.
It is after this night of passion that Lisa takes a turn towards evil. In a desperate attempt to get her mother on her side, she accuses Johnny of hitting her. It seems pretty obvious just from the way she says it that this is a lie, but it is not particularly out of the question with Johnny's character. Throughout the film we see him acting aggressively towards her and others, at one point he even shoves her down when she tries to leave. Especially with the extra loss of control that comes with alcohol, it is not unbelievable that he would hit her. But whether it is true or not, the important thing here is that no one believes her. No one takes her side or encourages her to leave. They all just continue the idea that Johnny is a good man. Lisa has learned that she cannot walk away, and now it seems like she cannot break away either.
Lisa's friend Michelle, who is similar to her in personality but not encumbered by an older man who demands commitment, is the only person in her life who seems to give her sensible advice. She is non-judgemental, appreciating that Lisa needs to find her own way, but advises her that people will get hurt if she is not open and honest. This conversation makes it clear that Lisa has gone beyond that. She feels no guilt, and has grown to hate Johnny in a way that you can only hate the people you once loved. This is what happens when we get trapped in bad situations due to commitment and the social expectations of monogamy. Rather than walking away when she should have, Lisa has stuck with it far too long and now resents her own life.
From this point on, all Lisa's interactions with Johnny are filled with hate. Johnny is a good man, but he is also simple and insecure. Lisa is a crucial part of his life plan and the option of losing her is not acceptable, regardless of how either of them feel. Johnny is a man who is more interested in having the ingredients of what he considers to be the perfect life than any actual tangible happiness.
It's also clear now that Lisa is desperate to get caught. After taking chances with seeing Mark, she takes the opportunity of Johnny's birthday party to really hammer home to him that she just doesn't want to be with him. She will get away from this situation and no longer cares about the collateral cost. She wants to live, live, live. Lisa is being selfish, but this has been a necessary reaction to not being able to achieve anything she wants. She has had to make a dramatic shift in order to survive. If she can't walk away from this life, she will burn it to the ground.
Johnny's birthday party is the perfect opportunity to do this. A large public event in which she can cause a scene, knowing that ultimately the result will be the end of this life she hates. Exactly how it will fall out is unknown, but she no longer cares, as long as it gets her away. She openly seduces Mark in front of everyone and even lies to Johnny about being pregnant. At this point it just seems like she's deliberately trying to hurt Johnny, or at least raise the emotional stakes enough to drive him to a reaction. Is she hoping that he will blow up? Hit her in a moment of anger like when he was drunk? Maybe he will just storm out and leave her because she is a bitch. It doesn't matter how it happens, as long as something breaks this up, and in front of everyone where it can't be reversed. Will she come out as the bad guy? She no longer cares.
Lisa gets her wish. Johnny is too set in his ways to even understand the situation. It's not about him doing something wrong that makes her want to leave, they just have different ideologies. He sees a woman as something he needs to take care of and her only responsibility is to be grateful and loyal. Lisa is from a modern generation and demands greater independence, even though she doesn't quite understand it herself.
When Johnny kills himself, we see the first real emotions from Lisa, by which I mean a reaction that is not tainted by thought. A legitimate in-the-moment response of genuine sadness and guilt. This has gone further than she ever expected. Johnny was a good man and did not deserve this. But even at this moment Lisa is naïve and tries to find solace in Mark, who has made it very clear at every opportunity that he has no real interest in her. Lisa doesn't yet understand the subtle intricacies of different relationships, she only knows love and hate, because that is all she was ever taught to expect.
Lisa is young and has had a sheltered life that has led to her making bad decisions. But she has a strong character that is desperate to get out. She was fed up with this world she had found herself in and knew she had to change it but did not have the psychological tools to do so in a sensible way. Her actions are a cry for help, cries that go repeatedly unheeded and lead her to more and more extreme measures.
She wants to live. She wants to fuck. She is a strong independent woman brought up in a society that would not allow that. She wants to get out of this room and nothing is going to stop her.