The Oak Room
By Mario Dhingsa
Dissection & Reflection’s rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2
Everyone has a story to tell, and some of them can be very dark indeed. ‘The Oak Room’ may contain some of the darkest you’ll ever hear, but this deserves your attention, no matter how much blood it’s steeped in.
Set in blizzard-bound Ontario, a drifter enters a bar “… with something better than cash.” He has a story. And my God, he’s not joking. One of the best moments for a film critic is finding a gem of a thriller that not only has a great script, but direction, score and cast to match; and ‘The Oak Room’ has it all. The film makes it all look so simple in crafting such brilliance, but there’s an incredible amount of talent that has taken it this far.
Written by Peter Genoway, ‘The Oak Room’ began as a critically-acclaimed play that won the Toronto Fringe New Play Contest in 2013. Luckily for movie fans everywhere, Genoway remained as the writer as the project transitioned to the big screen, under the helm of fellow Canadian, director Cody Calahan.
What Genoway and Calahan have crafted is something exceptional. The film makes a blistering start with a minimum of fuss within the first two minutes, and the tension only increases from there. Watching ‘The Oak Room’ reminds you that there is an art to story-telling: The plot is ingenious without being convoluted, the conflicts are nail-biting without feeling forced, and the dialogue is bold, believable and always entirely necessary. ‘The Oak Room’ has a great secret at the heart of its set-up, and that’s actually a rare find in cinema and modern story-telling. There are no post-modern cop-outs here. Genoway and Calahan haven’t only delivered on the price of your admission ticket or streaming fee – they’ve brought you Christmas eight months early.
Genoway and Calahan aren’t the only geniuses at work here. The score, and original song ‘Love Didn’t Care For Me’, by Steph Copeland will leave you tingling for all the right reasons. And the visuals are another stunning achievement for the film, a feat made more incredible by how confined the locations actually are. It’s a credit to Calahan and cinematographer Jeff Maher that so much of the film is beautifully bathed in bar light and shadow, without ever obscuring the narrative or emotional intensity of its actors. It also comes as no surprise that ‘The Oak Room’ won Best Cinematography at the South African HorrorFest last year.
Watching ‘The Oak Room’ isn’t going to restore your faith in humanity, but it will restore your faith in acting. Legends Peter Outerbridge and RJ Mitte are perfectly cast as the weary bartender and the indolent drifter. It’s their conflict that carries the film so convincingly, and it’s played with an anger and unease that is mesmeric to watch. There’s also a supporting cast here that never makes a wrong step – Ari Millen and Martin Roach as men with dark pasts, Nicholas Campbell as RJ Mitte’s broken father, and David Ferry as the world’s unluckiest barman. Young Avery Esteves also appears as a boy whose childhood is ending in front of him, and Coal Campbell (playing Nicholas Campbell’s younger self and his real-life son) features in the best hitch-hiking story ever told.
If there’s a flaw with the film, it’s that a couple of the storylines could have been closed with the same panache as the rest of the movie so effortlessly embodied. But let’s not goose the truth here. ‘The Oak Room’ is an ingeniously simple premise that has produced a phenomenal piece of film-making. It is one of the best thrillers you’ll see in 2021. And even if you’re tee-total, this is one bar that you have to visit.