The Oak Room

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Oak Room
"Few films have ever depicted the art of storytelling as brilliantly as this." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

A man walks into a bar. It’s gone closing time. The barkeep tells him to go away, but then hesitates – he knows this guy. This is Steve – little Steven. Steve owes him money. “How about I pay you with a story?” Steve suggests, and the barkeep is unimpressed, as you can imagine he would be. He’s got a bar to clean. He wants to go home and go to bed. But Steve keeps talking. All night, just talking, with the barkeep occasionally butting in. Until the dawn comes, and everything has changed.

It might not sound like much, but to understand it properly, you need to think about what happened beforehand.

Copy picture

Few films have ever depicted the art of storytelling as brilliantly as this. Peter Genoway's script is all the more impressive because it never seems to be trying to impress, especially in the early stages, when what Steve has to say sounds pretty run of the mill and the audience is likely to share the bartender's disinterest. It's designed to distract and confuse, to drift by you without you really paying attention in places, because this enables it to store up capital for later. This is a film in which little things matter. The ending will still hit home if you miss them, but you'll be kicking yourself, wondering why you didn't cotton on sooner. Those who listen closely, meanwhile, are likely to end up arguing with one another over exactly how events unspooled.

Whilst this tale could hypothetically be told just as well onstage, director Cody Calahan makes excellent use of his medium for two key purposes: to distract us further at key moments, and to enable us to get a closer look at the characters' faces and body language, so that we can better understand what is being communicated here beyond the words themselves. It's a psychologically tricky film, exploiting our natural biases and sympathies, and one in which the balance of power is constantly shifting. The mood created by the low lighting, the warm lighting behind the bar and the dark and stormy night (of course) outside enhances these effects and continues to work its magic as we shift in flashback to and from a different bar in a different storm on another lonely and uncertain night.

There's good casting here with unshowy performances that feel natural even as they conform to the established dynamics of this type of setting. RJ Mitte is particularly interesting as Steve, his work in the early scenes full of subtle gestures that signal him as full of himself but weak, then gradually changing as it becomes apparent that he's more complex than he seemed. Steve has been away for a while. Perhaps the barkeep didn't pay enough attention, back then, to notice that something had changed.

The Oak Room is screening as part of Fantasia 2020. If, sometime after the credits have rolled, a man offers to pay you with a story, you'll probably offer him money to go away, but you'll be glad that you paid to see this.

In the beginning was the word.

Reviewed on: 25 Aug 2020
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The Oak Room packshot
During a raging snowstorm, a drifter returns home to the blue-collar bar located in the remote Canadian town where he was born. When he offers to settle an old debt with a grizzled bartender by telling him a story, the night's events quickly spin into a dark tale of mistaken identities, double-crosses and shocking violence.

Director: Cody Calahan

Writer: Peter Genoway

Starring: RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Canada


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