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Fantasia ’20 Review: “THE OAK ROOM” spins a worthwhile web of stories and secrets

Monday, August 31, 2020 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Review


Starring RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge and Ari Millen
Directed by Cody Calahan
Written by Peter Genoway
Black Fawn Films/Breakthrough Entertainment

The setup for THE OAK ROOM is simple enough, and a familiar one at that: A guy walks into a bar. And yet, despite the recognizable formula, we quickly realize that this particular story is much less about the punchline and rather a dark, mysterious celebration of the journey.

Directed by Canadian filmmaker Cody Calahan (LET HER OUT, ANTISOCIAL), THE OAK ROOM, world-premiering at the Fantasia International Film Festival, is an adaptation by Peter Genoway of his own play–which, with its limited cast and restricted locations, was quite easy to effectively translate from one medium to another. Taking place over the course of one blustery and snowy night, while flashing back to other nights, the film introduces us to and invests us with four men as their seemingly disparate stories quickly become more than any one of them bargained for.

As THE OAK ROOM begins, we are introduced to scruffy bar owner Paul (Peter Outerbridge) as he’s getting ready to close up for the night. Unexpectedly, the door flies open and Steve (RJ Mitte), a familiar but long-absent young adult, walks through the door. The tension between the two becomes instantly clear as it’s revealed that Steve not only owes Paul money, but has also flunked out of college and failed to return home after his father Gordon’s passing. As a longtime friend of Gordon, Paul’s hurt runs deep with resentment and generational aggravation.

Having no funds to offer Paul, Steve instead offers him an unbelievable story that took place at a nearby bar aptly titled The Oak Room. With nothing but time to kill, Paul begrudgingly indulges him. The film then cuts to Richard (Martin Roach) as he stumbles into that establishment, freezing and frustrated. His car has broken down, and he is nowhere near dressed properly for the conditions. At The Oak Room, he finds temporary shelter as well as the cool and collected Michael (Ari Millen) standing behind the bar with his own unique stories to tell. As the two exchange hesitatingly tense pleasantries and conservational bits of information, their motivations get quickly and equally called into question. Soon, both characters and audience alike learn that not everything is quite what it seems and not everyone is who they appear to be.

Anchored by Jeff Maher’s beautiful cinematography, playing the action against a backdrop of cool greens, blues and yellows, THE OAK ROOM visually captivates while simultaneously relying on strong dialogue and character interactions. In particular, the dynamic between Steve and Paul becomes key to the drama and tension. Mitte is a pleasure to watch as he portrays a young adult finding himself while drifting through a murky assortment of circumstances, while Outerbridge is completely convincing as the gruff and tough bartender Paul, who keeps his own secrets held close to his chest. As we watch these two men exchange their tales, both personal and narrative, their emotions ebb and flow from humor to hurt with ease. Despite histrionic moments peeking through the facade from time to time, the overall impact is thoroughly gripping. One also cannot overlook or undervalue Steph Copeland’s tantalizing, mood-enhancing score. Beautifully complementing THE OAK ROOM’s carefully constructed framework and workaday settings, Copeland’s strings, piano and conservative use of electronic elements creates an aural temperature that hits on all levels.

Although it’s light on overt horror elements, the darker themes of human nature and the secrets men keep hang over THE OAK ROOM like a waterlogged cloud ready to burst. Intricately and effectively weaving stories both past and present, true and exaggerated, the film expresses the timeless quality that the tales we tell possess as outlets of connection. Executed with slow-burn precision and paced with supreme deliberation, it carefully places bites of humor throughout, with clever narrative shifts balancing out moments when the film teeters on stagnation, like a beer left out too long. Overall, THE OAK ROOM is an intriguing and engaging exercise in both visual and narrative storytelling, perfect for an introspective night in.