A guy walks into a bar. What follows is a rural neo-noir that stacks its stories like winning cards on a table, each tale trumping the last. The Oak Room is the latest from the fine folks over at Black Fawn Films, decidedly more of a subdued thriller than their usual horror fare, but it shows a level of maturity and restraint that speaks to the team’s evolving range. Directed by Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out) and written by Peter Genoway, The Oak Room is a deep study in storytelling with a hard-hitting finish.
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.
So, that guy walks into a bar, who tells the story of a guy who walks into a bar, who tells a story — it’s like a barfly’s Inception, with equally dreamlike qualities the deeper you go. Jeff Maher’s cinematography moves with just the right energy, sidling up to the bar in times of casual conversation and drifting through dreamscapes as memories unfold. The camera keeps the flow moving, which is of the utmost importance in a film that focuses mainly on two men talking. Though the characters vary, that’s really the heart of the film; an open dialogue that uses interruptions and sidetracks to play with the pacing.
The lighting is cold, delicate and precise. The music (by Steph Copeland) prompts the audience, shifting between homespun tunes that feel right at home in their dimly-lit settings and a haunting, moody score that soars over the proceedings, an unknown witness in the events that unfold. Serene, but with a dull edge that keeps you engaged.
The bar set serves double-duty, but you could never tell. Changes to the set decoration, lighting, layout, and camerawork are distinct in each location. Consistently, Black Fawn’s roster of behind-the-camera talent proves to be impressive; they know how to work together, and they know how to build a cohesive final product. Every element finds the melody and builds a perfect harmony.
Based on a play of the same name (also written by Genoway), The Oak Room carries a theatrical sensibility in its structure. The dialogue, the pacing, it all feels like it’s being run in one go on a stage. Because essentially, that’s what they did. Running long takes — up to 15 minutes at a time — the actors chew through their lines and keep the pace moving at a consistent clip as they lay it all down. The film was even shot chronologically. It orchestrates tension that ebbs and flows, ever building to the weighted, dramatic climax.
Peter Outerbridge (Saw VI) and RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) carry the film with sarcastic banter that we continually circle back to. In the actual Oak Room, Ari Millen (Orphan Black) and Martin Roach (Cube Zero) pull their fair share of the weight with their snarling square-off. Each performance is nuanced, yet open; there’s a lot of tension boiling under the surface of the casual dialogue.
The main story studies loss and the relationship between father and son. These themes — this unspoken hurt — anchors the film, but it’s easy to get caught up in the spinning yarn. Though there’s a slow build and a fair bit of meandering, each layer of story leads you a bit further down the road, creeping closer to its payoff.
The Oak Room is clever and beautifully made, with engrossing and inventive storytelling that stands out in a bar crowded with cookie-cutter thrillers. If you’re looking for a unique story with creative execution, then settle in and grab a drink.
The Oak Room is playing as part of Fantasia 2020, which has gone digital so you can watch from the safety and comfort of your own home. Check it out next on Monday August 31 at 11:30PM EST.