A half-drunk bottle sits on the surface of a bar. A fight appears in the background. Although the altercation is out of focus, the grunts and pounds of punches colliding is heard loud and clear.
From the opening scene of Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room, the idea of the film is clear—this is a movie that will be heard more than seen.
“The ending only makes sense when you’ve heard the beginning”The Oakroom (2020)
Set to the backdrop of a raging Canadian snowstorm, a young drifter, Steve, (Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte) returns to his hometown to collect the ashes of his deceased father. He visits a local bar, of which he used to frequent. There, he reunites with a friend of his late father, a gruff barkeep (Peter Outerbridge) named Paul, to whom he owes money. The barkeep makes it clear, until his debts have been cleared, the ashes of the drifter’s father will remain at the bar. Having no money, Steve strikes up a deal; in return for the ashes, the drifter must tell a tale interesting enough to wipe his debts clean. The men take viewers on a journey of stories, each unraveling a deeper interconnecting tale of macabre fate.
At its core, this is the story of stories. The bartender tells a narrative of the drifter’s father (Nicholas Campbell) in which the man speaks of his own hitchhiking experience. Then, Steve retells a layered account of mistaken identity, a hitman (Orphan Black’s Ari Millen), and a mysteriously well-dressed man (Martin Roach). Although the anecdotes are filled with shocking acts of violence and double crossings, little to any of this is actually shown. Much like a campfire tale, most of the gory details are left to the imagination, guided by brilliant sound design and description narrated by the cast.
Performances by the cast vary from scene to scene, based on the chemistry shared between actors. Outerbridge brings a forceful nature to Paul that feels slightly overacted when sharing the screen with Mitte’s more subdued nature. This level of exaggeration can be a detriment when considering the film’s reliance on character interaction. The shining star of the ensemble is Ari Millen, whose natural approach to his morally ambiguous character drives forth a chilling portrayal. Though he has a short amount of screen time, Millen steals the show by showcasing both sincere hospitality and deranged emotions, creating a brilliantly human antagonist.
All-in-all, The Oakroom manages to keep up a constantly engaging story, a hard-feat in such a dialogue heavy film. Even still, by the film’s ending, it felt as though the film meant nothing. There was no big revelation, or great character-defining arc, making The Oakroom feel forgettable in the scheme of things.
Besides a few heavy-hitters from the cast, the movie did not create anything new or original; there wasn’t much that set the film apart as its own original take on the horror genre. Even still, the gorgeous set design and eloquent dialogue made The Oakroom a worthy watch for one searching for a new thriller to indulge in.