Fantasia Fest 2020’s The Oak Room, brought to us by Black Fawn Films and Breakthrough Entertainment Inc. is a lavishly shot and performed locked-room thriller that captivates you as the story slowly unfolds revealing that everything isn’t as it seems.
Directed by Cody Calahan and adapted from a Peter Genoway play, The Oak Room stars a handful of superb character actors with RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad), Peter Outerbridge (The Expanse), Ari Millen (Orphan Black) and Martin Roach (The Shape Of Water) all find themselves meeting in small-town bars during the middle of a snow storm and simply telling each other stories.
Of course, The Oak Room isn’t as simple as strangers telling each other a story. The script plays with linear narrative giving us endings before beginnings on more than one occasion setting up reveals and punchlines as a result, as well as using stories within a story to inform on what’s happening in the present. As a result we’re given a slow-burn neo-noir-esque thriller that masterfully twists and turns and set ups a bloody, yet calm, climax full of mistaken identities, double crosses and violence.
Mitte and Outerbridge do most of the heavy lifting in this film, and both are on top form as uneasy acquaintances unexpectedly thrust together, Mitte’s Steve is the prodigal son, returning after some time away and the death of his father, Outerbridge’s Paul is the distrustful barman owed money by Steve. The film is almost entirely dialogue set in a single setting but these two put on captivating performances that draw you in and leave you wanting to figure out what’s really going on.
Millen is also particularly good as the driving force behind most of the film’s more shocking moments, especially as he has to, in a sense, play two separate roles, one he’s pretending to be, and one that he really is. This duality of what’s going on in the surface and what’s actually happening underneath as secrets are revealed and narrative is played with is a big part of what makes The Oak Room great.
The standout performance though is perhaps Nicholas Campbell’s Gordon, who plays Mitte’s estranged father. With a limited amount of screen-time his monologue is the most emotional affecting, as he talks about the strained relationship he has with his son and the distance between them. It encapsulates one of the films specific themes of fatherhood and how the relationship between father and son can evolve over time.
Another, is the unexpectedly great cinematography. The small-town bar in a snow storm aesthetic is so richly realised in these sets and so full of interesting visual flourishes like neon and amber lights that the viewer’s eye doesn’t get bored by the same setting. Cinematographer Jeff Maher has really done a lot with a little to make every shot as stunning as possible with some brilliant use of lighting. Something that’s extremely noticeable from the first scene of the film, a dread-inducing scene focussing on a beer bottle with something horrible taking place behind it.
The exposition heavy film and the sense that often characters are chewing through monologues, simply because they have to get the story out, does prove to be somewhat of a flaw at times, and certainly impedes on the level of tension the film seems to be shooting for. But, the performances from all involved, the obviously high production values and the inherent quality of the individual stories they’re all telling make it all interesting enough to keep you entertained.
It’s not strictly a horror film, although some of the elements within it are certainly horrific, especially the small flurry of brutality we see in the third act. But no, The Oak Room, much like the snow storm that drives its characters together is rather more of a cold-thriller, one that will take you on a journey in the snow with your city-shoes and suit on, leaving you unprepared for the chill and longing for a warm drink in a friendly atmosphere.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here