Fantasia Festival Review: The Oak Room

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 Minutes

Director: Cody Calahan

Writers: Peter Genoway

Stars: RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Michael Roach

By Tom Moore

Taking viewers to the grim Canadian backwoods for some tense bar talk, director Cody Calahan and writer Peter Genoway come together to create a killer thriller with “The Oak Room”.

Set against the backdrop of a frigid blizzard, the film follows an even colder relationship as Stevie (RJ Mitte) returns home after being a drifter for some time in order to collect the remains of his father (Nicolas Campbell) from an angry bartender named Paul (Peter Outerbridge). Paul was best friends with Stevie’s father, Gordon, and was forced to take care of his funeral arrangements and cremation since Stevie was out “drifting” and never came back for the funeral. Even worse is that Stevie can only repay the major debt that he owes to Paul with a story. So, as he starts to tell his story about two men at a bar called “The Oak Room”, the details and meaning of the story start to resonate with Paul in a way that turns the night into a dark tale of mistrust that leads to shocking and violent conclusions.

“The Oak Room” is the kind of slow burn mystery that’s so secretive with its details and steeped in its dark, wintry setting that it’s doesn’t necessarily get off on the right foot. The film definitely struggles to make an immediate first impression as it’s not exactly revealing about even the most minor of details. Frankly, it’s not even clear why Paul and Stevie have this bad connection or why Stevie even shows up, so their conversations come off a little overdramatic. The script also falls into a mystery trope that’s an absolute pet peeve of mine – having characters come off mysterious by just having them repeatedly ask each other questions.

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Personally, this kind of writing is just an incredibly lazy way at getting character details and exposition out and it’s just frustrating to listen to. After all, does anyone really like having their question be answered with another question? No, it’s really not. There’re literally giant sequences where characters just rapidly fire off questions to one another and it can’t feel like you’re not learning anything and/or not making any kind of progress in the story. Within the first few minutes, it was honestly hard to peg down what exactly “The Oak Room” was offering and if things were going to become clear. However, once Stevie’s story comes into play and bad pasts bleed into the present, “The Oak Room” really becomes an enticing thriller.

“The Oak Room” really becomes a strong ode to storytelling, in general, that gives off shades of “The Hateful Eight”

Even while the story wasn’t hooking me from the start, the cinematography from Jeff Maher was easy to see as one of the most compelling and intriguing aspects of the film. Throughout the film, there’s this dark presence of death and deception that can be felt through the grimy and shadowy look of the film that’s a perfect fit for the angry and untrustworthy tone of just about every character. Even though most of the film is kind of just conversations and stories, there’s always this foreboding feel to it that keeps you a little nervous about how things are going to end and whether or not the confrontational attitudes are going to lead to something physical. The cinematography is easily the most effective when it’s showing a suspicious third party coming to meet Paul and Stevie as the overwhelming snow that completely obscures all vision and just consumes the entire environment just sucks you right into the film.

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The performances also start to come into their own as this great cast of familiar faces hook viewers on great monologues, combative chemistry, and incredibly strong personality. Campbell delivers an incredibly dour performance that makes you empathize with Gordon’s sadness about old age and the life he’s losing as he tells a traumatic story from his youth, Michael Roach and Ari Millen have a great feuding sequence that just wreaks of delightful mistrust and mystery, and Millen especially kills with a great monologue of him telling a traumatic childhood story and nails every aspect on how to tell a compelling and intriguing story. Outerbridge and Mitte are definitely top performers here as well as Outerbridge delivers a grisly anger that just chews up the scenery with an intense grit and embodies how sickened he is to see Stevie. Mitte delivers a performance that’s much more understated as he seems simple-minded at first, but then pulls a total Keyser Soze type move at the end that’s very satisfying.

“The Oak Room” nails great storytelling as it’s captivating performances, incredibly dark scenery, and vividly detailed storytelling.”

The best thing that comes together, thankfully, is the storytelling as “The Oak Room” really becomes a strong ode to storytelling, in general, that gives off shades of “The Hateful Eight”. The confrontational conversations constantly keep you hooked, once they stop asking so many questions, and you can feel it building to big conclusions – which end up being very satisfying. The dark undertone the technical aspects kick off bleeds perfectly into the stories as things take a much more shocking and violent turn that totally catches you off guard. There’s even a great storytelling elements introduced with Paul talking about “goosing”, or rather embellishing, the truth that makes you question if someone is really telling the whole truth and puts you on edge with every detail. In the end, all of the details come together for a satisfying and harrowing conclusion that sticks with you and puts a perfect end to the complex narrative that’s been slowly unfolding.

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Although it gets off to a bumpy start, “The Oak Room” nails great storytelling as it’s captivating performances, incredibly dark scenery, and vividly detailed storytelling come together to create a slow burn thriller that gives you frigid chills.

4 stars

“The Oak Room” will be showing at Fantasia Film Festival from 20th August to 2nd September.

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