Directed by Cody Calahan
Written by Peter Genoway
Starring Coal Campbell, Nicholas Campbell, Amos Crawley, David Ferry, RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge
Based on a one-act play from Peter Genoway, The Oak Room feels like an intimate chamber piece sent out into the Canadian tundra to see if it can conjure up a little more mischief out in the big bad world. Enjoying its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Fest, the filmmakers helping bring Genoway’s play from stage to screen have actually had an astounding run at the Montreal festival over the years amassing 10 premieres, none more memorable than 2020 for obvious reasons. Arguably, there’s never really been a great bar movie. Barfly captures the despair and the poetry of a drunkard and television gave us the camaraderie of Cheers, and Withnail and I showed the dark comedy of boozing through life and not really caring who knows it. The Oak Room is not a great bar movie but it does show, in vivid detail, how the art of storytelling can sometimes be found in its purest form just before last call.
Usually, the bartender feigns interest just to get you to the next round but some stories, especially when they’re a little devious, actually get you that next bottle of Molson because it’s truly earned. When Steve (RJ Mitte) pops in to an empty bar in the middle of a snowstorm to entertain Paul (Peter Outerbridge), a jaded bartender counting the clock, they both don’t really know what’s in store for them. A story within a story, The Oak Room illustrates the seemingly endless loop of a bartender: A guy walks into a bar telling a story about a guy walking into a bar telling a story about a guy who walks into a bar. There’s always a sense of dread in the air even if everything on the surface seems like any other night. But through subtle hints and knowing looks, every character inherently knows that something is off. It’s up to the bartender or the raconteur to figure out who has the upper hand, and director Cody Calahan does a bang up job of making sure you never know which one is in control. Or, as they say up North, who’s goosing the truth.
Slowly, the suspense builds up to a point where the tension from behind the bar to the barstool is palpable but the horror of this story doesn’t rear its ugly head until the final act. Through a neon haze of mood lighting and masterful attention to detail, little clues start to present themselves even though the comfort of a warm bar and a cold beer keep suspicion at bay. Characters backstories aren’t really explained as much as they’re hinted at, and that’s when the common thread of fathers and sons starts to emerge.
Once a parable about a small boy forced to abandon a piglet from a pregnant sow is told, the story suddenly takes a sinister turn that adds a deeper layer to what has seemed, up until then, like a mostly friendly affair. That’s when the stroke of midnight invites the cold air in from outside to turn The Oak Room into a tale of unpredictable strangers that carry the same unpredictability as wary old west outlaws. If you don’t pick up on everything the first time, it may be worth a second glance to connect the dots but it’s not really necessary. It’s better to be fooled along with everyone else, even the confident bartender that cautions midway through the film, “You can’t snow the snowman.”
The Oak Room is not a great bar movie but it does show, in vivid detail, how the art of storytelling can sometimes be found in its purest form just before last call.