Fantasia 2020 – The Oak Room (2020)

Directed by: Cody Calahan. Starring: RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen. Runtime: 1h 30 min. This film premiered had its World Premiere at Fantasia Festival on August 24. 

In Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room, a young man, Steve (RJ Mitte) returns to his small Ontario town in the middle of the night and visits the local bar at closing time. We learn that the bartender, Paul (Peter Outerbridge) is a friend of Steve’s late father and that Steve owes Paul money. Steve’s all out of cash so instead offers him a story about what happened last week in The Oak Room bar.

Written by Peter Genoway who adapts from his own play, the film adaptation is entirely effective because of its screenplay. As Steve shares his story it goes down a road of stories within stories that drive the film, where the common theme appears to be small-town bars and blizzards.

Director Cody Calahan gives us the right amounts of tension at precise moments and some parts of the stories become so crazy that it sounds like Steve is “goosing the truth a bit,” which Paul defines as wanting more action in the story. The film’s like a crash course in how to tell the perfect story. Of course, if the filmmaking team didn’t know the importance of strong writing, The Oak Room would be dead-on arrival. Luckily, it never flatlines.

The structure of the stories told here add to the unpredictability of the film. I wasn’t sure where it was going as it plays out like a film noir with thriller elements, but it arrested my attention for most of it. The stories make some mundane things feel compelling, and one of the more fascinating storytellers amongst this group is the bartender at The Oak Room, Michael (Ari Millen).

His story about a pig is great, and as he tells it Cody Calahan’s visuals complement everything well. The original play was a one-room location but for the feature there are a few different locations as we’re at these locations for long stretches of dialogue. About Ari Millen as Michael, he reprises his role from the play and it’s no wonder he’s brought back because he has a great presence. He’s also a producer on the film.

RJ Mitte as Steve is great here and is a good storyteller, too, though since his story is about Michael in the Oak Room, Michael and his late-night visitor, Richard (Martin Roach), steal most of Steve’s thunder. The Oak Room story is the most intriguing one brought to the table as it’s the main story of the film, besides Steve and Paul just chatting at the bar.

The Oak Room - Still 3 (Additional Still)
The Oak Room (Photo Courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival).

Peter Outerbridge is a highlight as Paul. He’s a great Canadian character actor and it doesn’t seem that he ever gets roles this meaty for the entire runtime, and it’s awesome to watch him act for an entire film. He brings the intensity and the emotion, like when he tells Steve that he had to pay for the funeral and tried to collect money at the bar to pay for the coffin. It’s good casting as a bartender who talks a lot. “I’m a bartender with a big mouth and I know how to tell a good story,” says Paul before he tells a story about a fishing trip in one of the film’s biggest laughs.

As much as I liked the film when someone would tell a tale and we would get Calahan’s visuals to accompany it, the film is equally effective when a character just tells the story and we watch him tell it. That fishing trip is one of my favourite stories because it’s the most effective example of this.

As well as being very dialogue-heavy using its stories to advance the plot, it’s character-driven, too, as we know all we need to know about Paul, Steve and Michael by the end of the film leading into its outcome. We learn about them through their stories and we also learn about Steve’s father, Gord (Nicholas Campbell) when Paul recalls an eerie and existential story of Gord reminiscing about a hitchhiker, though Gord tells us this story within Paul’s “flashback.” Then, Gord reminiscing about his son is a scene that captivates, too. Steve and Gord never share the screen; but the father/son relationship’s felt throughout.

The blizzard is the perfect ambiance for The Oak Room, too. It makes me want to sit back and relax and watch this film by a campfire. I love how this film just focuses on dialogue, characters, not a ton of action but having the right beats of tension to always maintain the audience’s interest. It also just feels so Canadian. It’s simple and it’s only a bartender and a guy coming in after hours in a small town to reminisce during a snowstorm, sharing stories. Plus, there’s a lot of bitterness and some violence for good measure thrown in.

Score: 75/100

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