Fantasia 2020: 'The Oak Room' Engages with Enigmatic Storytelling
by Zofia Wijaszka
August 26, 2020
Screened as a selection of the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. Many stories begin with, "a man walks into a bar." They are often light jokes, but some involve bone-chilling circumstances and plot twists that we would never expect to follow. The latter transpires in The Oak Room, a suspenseful thriller from Canadian filmmaker Cody Calahan (Let Her Out) and written by Peter Genoway (Masks). The creators set the story during a frosty storm in a small, dim-lit bar. What captures our attention right away is the filmmakers' ability to generate anxiety around a variety of storylines and surprise us with sudden twists and turns in the film. Calahan also highlights the tremendous value and significance of well-crafted, enigmatic storytelling.
A drifter named Steve (RJ Mitte) arrives at the bar in his Canadian hometown, in the middle of a raging blizzard. But he doesn't seem too welcome by its owner, Paul (Peter Outerbridge). After a less-than-kind exchange between the two, we find out that Steve is indebted to Paul. Said debt was even the reason why the character didn't go to his father's funeral. Penniless Steve offers to settle the old debt by telling Paul a story. After heavy persuasion and harsh words, the bar owner reluctantly agrees. Paul is dismissive at first but gets interested in what Steve has to say. The action quickens after Steve shows a coaster from the titular Oak Room located in Elk Lake, Ontario. Suddenly, the audience is transferred into the character's story, where we meet Michael (Ari Millen), an employee at The Oak Room. Michael, in Steve's narrative, is faced with a dubious stranger (Martin Roach) who appears in the bar out of nowhere, wearing only light jacket during the frosty, unforgiving weather. While jumping from one storyline to another, the narrative quickly converts into a series of bloody and suspicious events where not everyone is who they claim they are.
The Oak Room is an absorbing film right from the very beginning. Both men at the bar are agitated by each other, and we want to know the reason. It gets even more fascinating when Steve brings up this story. At some point, his character even frustrates the audience with so much tempting and stopping. It appears as all the characters act suspicious to some degree. However, the real master of the suspense in The Oak Room is Ari Millen in his role as Michael. He has a great talent for performing with facial expressions. It's certainly noticeable in "Orphan Black", which he starred in in multiple roles. RJ Mitte is also fascinating and, at the same time, annoying as Steve. The way that his narrative plays out is very relatable and reminds me of a person that takes forever to choke out their words. That has a point, however. When the film reaches its climax, the characters are faced with a bloody twist.
The Oak Room has a noteworthy concept in which its characters and the warm surroundings of the bar build up tension and the unique atmosphere. Calahan also enhances the film's potential by developing a story within a story. The plot jumps from one storyline to another, but it's never messy nor confusing. Although the film drags at some points, its remarkable storyline and unforgettable characters make it worth watching. By establishing two separate timelines, the director and the screenwriter showcase the incredible power of cinematic storytelling. They remind the audience that words or stories can be extremely dangerous and yet seldom turn into actions. Ultimately, the film focuses on illustrating the charm of telling stories to people that we know and to those that we don't know. The Oak Room's narrative is one of the most inventive ways to create suspense and awake curiosity in a simple thriller which takes place only in two bars.
The events in this pair perfectly with a suspenseful score by Steph Copeland. Calahan skillfully directs a film that centers around conversations and their aftermath. Although there is little character development overall, the film immediately hooked me. It's not an easy task to capture our attention when the characters do nothing but talk. But Calahan does this phenomenally and leads us to the satisfying and unexpected end.
I love the atmosphere of spending time in a small town bar where everybody knows each other. Although the summer is nearing its end and it's still relatively hot, the film made me miss chilly weather. I think it's great to watch The Oak Room in the evening to fully connect with the feeling of a cold night in a smoky bar in the middle of a snowstorm. The film is a must watch for any true fans of thrillers. It features different stories, diverse narratives, and surprising plot twists. Calahan accentuates the art of storytelling and its complexity and value of a good story. It pairs well with the film's dark themes and suspicious characters. Ultimately, all the film's components create a satisfying, surprising, and bloody whole.
Zofia's Fantasia 2020 Rating: 4 out of 5
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