Peter Outerbridge

The Oak Room

Late one night during a snowstorm, a man wanders into a bar in his hometown. He has a debt to settle with the bartender, but he offers the bartender a story instead of money. It’s a story of intrigue, murder, and lies. He won’t believe what happened in The Oak Room.

Director Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out) brings to life the thrilling noir screenplay written by Peter Genoway, who makes his feature film debut. The Oak Room takes the art of oral storytelling and injects it into every aspect of the plot. Stripping it down to its core, the plot follows two main stories. The first is that of the drifter returning to his hometown. His father has died and he wants to collect his ashes from the grumpy bartender. The problem is, he owes the bartender money and he won’t hand over the ashes until he gets what he is owed. The second main story is the one the drifter is telling. He spins a yarn about a bar in a nearby town where a man passing through during a snowstorm stumbles into a bar as it’s closing, much like the drifter did himself. Then there are other, shorter stories being told within those stories.

At times the weaving of the many different stories creates a lack of focus in the film, but it presents an interesting format that is essentially an anthology and generates intrigue as audiences have to wait until the end to find out how the two main stories end. The filmmakers also cleverly ended the film in a way that leaves it up to the audience members on whether or not those two stories will collide or not.

One of the more compelling aspects of the storytelling in The Oak Room is how the filmmakers play with focus and elaboration. As the stories are being told, the storytellers often choose to either focus on one specific aspect of a larger story, or they tell a story non-synchronously. The bartender also emphasizes “goosing the truth.” This basically means changing details of a story to make it more exciting and interesting. It points out how different stories can be depending on who the storyteller is and who they are telling the story to.

While there are many fantastic performances throughout the many stories in The Oak Room, the actors in the two main stories stand out. RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad, The Recall) stars as the drifter, Steve. What really makes Mitte’s performance memorable is how Steve starts out seeming like he’s just a screw-up, but as the plot progresses, he seems to have mysterious, maybe even sinister motives. Peter Outerbridge (Lucky Number Slevin, Saw VI) plays the bartender, Paul, whom Steve goes to see. Paul is a very ornery, grizzled bartender who clearly dislikes Steve. Outerbridge does a great job of being grumpy, but also somehow likable in his gruffness. Then there are the two main characters from the story being told by Steve. Ari Millen (Darken, The Expanse) plays the bartender of The Oak Room, Michael. Much like Paul, Michael is rather gruff and rude, but Millen plays Michael in a much more menacing way. He has the same presence as a lion preparing to pounce. Then there is the late-night bar patron, Richard, played by Martin Roach (The Shape of Water, Cube Zero). Roach does a fantastic job of toeing the line between grateful and haughty. Richard is relying on Paul’s hospitality since the bar is technically closed, but he also is an entitled city boy who clearly expects to get what he wants. Each pair of men perfectly conveys the tension and hostility between the characters.

The Oak Room utilizes unique storytelling techniques to create a neo-noir thriller that is reminiscent of an anthology. Calahan and Genoway weave together different tales while still drawing focus to the two main plots. It creates a sort of nesting doll effect of revealing a story within a story, then putting them back together to return to the tale of Steve and Paul. The film has strong performances to help move the varying plots foward. At times the many stories lead to a lack of focus despite the fact that they are each intriguing. There is no shortage of intrigue and by the time the film ends viewers will be trying to decide what parts of these tales being told were fact and which were fiction.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10