There is something oddly unsettling about the isolation and bitter cold found in the Canadian North. The moody atmosphere and sense of dread that comes from these conditions is only made worse when a storm rolls in, cutting all remaining connection to the outside world. This is the setting of The Oak Room, using the isolation and a bitter winter storm as the backdrop for a film filled with story, betrayal and violence, that will keep you on the edge of your seat as each new layer is pulled away.
Directed by Cody Calahan (Let Her Out) and written by Peter Genoway in an adaptation of his stage play, The Oak Room is a minimalist thriller that delves into the isolation and depravity that lurks just underneath the surface. During a bitter storm, Steve (RJ Mitte) bursts into a bar just as it is closing for the night. After years of being away, he is back to deal with the aftermath of his life, along with settle old scores with bartender Paul (Peter Outerbridge). As the two delve into past sins, Steve offers up a story as a form of payment for past mistakes, and what follows is a journey into mistaken identity, small-town grudges, and the brutality of strangers.
The Oak Room is ultimately a story about stories, with the different aspects of Steve’s tale giving a larger insight into the town, and the people in it. As more details about antagonist Michael (Ari Millen) are revealed, and reluctant Paul becomes more invested in the tale, the truth of how all the characters interconnect is slowly uncovered. As Steve reveals more, and the simple story becomes darker and more depraved, Paul finds himself demanding more, only to fear what these answers could mean. The Oak Room is a slow burn that demands it’s audience take each new aspect in, building to a crescendo of violence and fear.
With the movie using a single set for the most of the runtime, The Oak Room boils down the narrative to the bare essentials, using the nuance and atmosphere to paint a picture of isolation, tension and hate with precision and care. It is a feat few films do with larger budgets or more elaborate concepts, and Calahan must be commended on doing so much with so little.
But even with a great setting, it will be the acting and tension built by the performance that makes or breaks a film, and thankfully Outerbridge and Mitte take to their roles with style and a sense of tension that will keep the audience glued to their seats. While The Oak Room is a relatively simple story, the performances of the main cast and supporting characters elevate it into something engaging, stressful and demanding your attention.
The Oak Room is a film about storytelling and uses that concept to paint a uniquely personal narrative. While minimalistic, it delves into the depravity of your fellow man, and while it may not be as bombastic as other movies in the genre, the subtle tension and attention to detail craft a viewing experience like no other. Premiering at the 2020 Fantasia Festival, if you have a chance to catch this little film, do yourself a favour and hunker down for a brutal slow burn of a stormy night you won’t soon forget.