As The Oak Room begins, you never expect it to be as thoroughly engaging as it eventually becomes. Cody Calahan’s film is assumedly effective in a lo-fi movie that strikes you with its simple premise and striking visuals.
A drifter, Steve (RJ Mitte), offers to settle a debt with a grizzled bartender Paul (Peter Outerbridge), by telling him a story during a raging snowstorm. The night’s events quickly spiral into a dark tale of deceit, mistaken identity and shocking violence.
The Oak Room goes down a road that is as unexpected as it is refreshing. Adapted from Peter Genoway’s play, we have a stark film on characters but full of atmosphere. With a simple premise of a character offering a story as a payment method shouldn’t bring this much tension. By never letting the film get carried away with itself, it becomes a wonderful watch.
What helps The Oak Room is that we have a film with so many small moments and touches that it is ripe for multiple viewings. Be it how characters use their beer as a way of showing their emotions to the audience (but not the other character) or the use of light, we pick up on all of these moments brilliantly.
The performances are also great here as Mitte and Outerbridge show great chemistry together. They feel purposely disjointed at the beginning due to the tension between the two and the time that has passed since they last met. When Steve is confronted about why he is at the bar in the opening. Their body languages convey their emotions as much as the solid script does. The rest of the small ensemble’s chemistry is essential to the films’ success here. With the awkward and suspense-filled exchanges between all of the characters, we feel their angst and anger, even if they are strangers, reflecting the two characters telling their stories.
As mentioned, the small touches that work best here, so when we know that Paul and Steve dislike one another to see the rest of the characters be practically combative in their exchanges, it makes all the sense. They are portraying their emotions in these stories that they tell each other. As Paul tells his story, the venom in what Steve’s father is saying is really to point to Steve why mistreating his family was wrong. The question that remains throughout is whether consciously or unconsciously each does this.
As good as The Oak Room is at creating atmosphere and an ominous presence. It does start off a bit rough with the opening conversation with Steve and Paul. By keeping so much close to the chest other than Steve abandoned his father and Paul took on a lot of the financial costs of helping the late father. We learn next to nothing about this duo who never say enough to further explain why we should care about them.
It could be seen as a plus as we are given blank slates to projects our thoughts and feelings onto as eventually, as the film progresses, we get a fuller scope of this duo. By the finale, we are glued to them as their mysterious layers begin to shed to reveal their intentions in an utterly suspenseful climax.
It also feels as if this was the point of the film. To present us with two characters who do not overly compel you and as Steve starts his story, to then turn it as we learn how pointed the stories each tells are. By luring us into a false sense of security or even apathy with this story. We are not set up for what is to come—a great narrative bait and switch.
What is consistent throughout is the excellent cinematography from Jeff Maher. He is able to set the tone and dark foreboding from the start (which is why the rather dull interaction at the beginning feels so off). Maher utilises shadows expertly, and even in the day time scenes. We never feel safe or sully secure with the room that we are in. This is never highlighted more than in those final perfect scenes that have us on the edge of our seat.
This is a great story that will grab you far more than you would expect it to. With some terrific performances, this is a very satisfying mystery thriller.
The Oak Room will be released on digital download from April 26 in the UK, from April 27 in Canada (Black Fawn Distribution) and from April 28 (also Lightbulb Film Distribution) in Australia and New Zealand. Pre-order your copy here!
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