Studio: Black Fawn Films
Director: Cody Calahan
Writer: Peter Genoway
Producer: Chad Archibald, Cody Calahan, Ari Millen
Stars: RJ Mitte, Ari Millen, Martin Roach, Nicholas Campbell, David Ferry, Peter Outerbridge
Intertwining stories told at two different bars during snowstorms gradually reveal a mystery involving old ghosts, false identifies, and murder.
One thing about the moviemakers who make up Black Fawn Films, they certainly know how to be cinematic with their stories, no matter how Spartan any setup may be. ¡°The Oak Room¡± opens on a shot of a beer bottle on a bar table, but upside down. The camera spins right side up and closes in on the brown glass. A violent struggle blurs in the background, yet the lens never flinches its focus off of the bottle. There¡¯s a prophetic statement being made here about how director Cody Calahan plans to keep key pieces concealed while deliberately diverting attention to static distractions featured in the foreground.
It¡¯s fortunate cinematographer Jeff Maher keeps the audience¡¯s eyes active using creative camera movements because ¡°The Oak Room¡± otherwise plays out plainly. That¡¯s by design. It¡¯s no coincidence that the film echoes the atmosphere of a stripped, quiet chamber play confined primarily to one location where only two people talk at a time. Coming as no surprise, screenwriter Peter Genoway did in fact adapt ¡°The Oak Room¡± from a previous play, which you can guess only minutes into the movie.
Steve (RJ Mitte) just set foot in his snowy hometown for the first time in three years. That first step takes Steve to a familiar bar. Establishment owner Paul (Peter Outerbridge) can hardly believe his instantly incensed eyes when he sees who darkens his doorway. Steve left town without paying his debts, didn¡¯t bother to return for his father¡¯s funeral, and now strides back in like his unexpected return is just another everyday event.
A push-pull dynamic quickly develops between the two men. They speak in circles seemingly intended to test one another, poking for information or possibly prodding for a slip-up that might unseal a secret. Steve and Paul make roundabout references to people, places, and things from their past that viewers aren¡¯t privy to, but which might mean something significant to them.
Paul¡¯s place doesn¡¯t have the market cornered on ambiguous atmosphere. There¡¯s also the titular Oak Room, a bar almost identical to Paul¡¯s right down to a blizzard blustering outside and an unwelcome patron imposing on the owner inside.
Bartering for his dead father¡¯s ashes, Steve proposes telling a story as payment. Paul demurs, but Steve tells it anyway. Steve recounts something that supposedly happened just last Saturday at The Oak Room, where a mysterious man (Martin Roach) and the guy behind the counter (Ari Millen) also engaged in a contentious confrontation mired in cryptic conversation and an unusual storytelling session of their own.
How, if at all, does this other tale relate to Steve and Paul¡¯s situation? That¡¯s something ¡°The Oak Room¡± only gets to much later, after making a few more rest stops in the meantime.
Evidenced early, ¡°The Oak Room¡± molds its faintly pulsing mystery out of furtive behavior and cagey communication. Interactions involve indirect hinting and unspoken understandings. Dialogue takes cues from David Mamet¡¯s school of repetition and pointed vagueness, with more spoken sentences ending in question marks than in periods. One typical exchange volleys like this:
¡°Do I owe you?¡±
¡°Do you owe me?¡±
¡°Yeah, do I owe you?¡±
¡°The Oak Room¡± plays cards close to its chest, too close for those who need a little more orange for the dangled carrot of intrigue to remain enticing. Pitted against a firm resistance to dropping clues regarding direction, you have to trust the plot will provide a payoff as separate threads weave and weave without showing strong signs of tying together. You surrender to a sense that satisfying surprises are in store, yet rather than regularly rolling over into revelations, the story¡¯s wheel repeatedly resets before merely spinning another sidetrack. When the endgame finally arrives, it only hits like a light slap instead of with the full force of a brain-bending blow to the head.
Paul tells Steve something ironic partway through their t¨ºte-¨¤-t¨ºte. In explaining how sometimes you have to ¡°goose the truth¡± to keep a story captivating, Paul says, ¡°If you want to keep my attention, you¡¯ve got to skip over the boring sh*t. You¡¯ve got to pump up the action, give me some meat to chew on.¡± I¡¯m not sure ¡°The Oak Room¡± recognizes the meta layer to that message since it doesn¡¯t adhere to the same advice.
Formatted like an anthology without actually being one, the film stocks up on ancillary scenes of variable relevance to the primary arc. Yet while cursory comb-overs covering narrative bald spots leave us with little to care about regarding some ultimately unimportant characters, we do always care about the actors underneath. From the man with the most lines down to the man with the least, every role gets sharpened by wrenchingly emotional believability that makes each performance pop. ¡°The Oak Room¡± may not fulfill its promise as a thriller, but it does boast a big spotlight for outstanding acting.
Playing Steve¡¯s blue-collar father in a flashback, Nicholas Campbell¡¯s monologue is a particular show-stealer and he never even leaves his seat during his pain-faced recollections of verbalized regret. You¡¯d swear Campbell is intently immersed in a genuine moment from his memory and not reciting rehearsed words someone else wrote for him.
¡°The Oak Room¡¯s¡± blessing basically becomes the same as its curse. It¡¯s a compact actor¡¯s showcase that isn¡¯t open to visual excitement, but does afford opportunities for its cast to engage, emote, and inhabit New Age noir personalities with impressively infectious fervor.
True to its template, ¡°The Oak Room¡± really is the movie equivalent of drinking a Budweiser in a dimly lit dive bar with wood-paneled walls, listening to on-edge drunks telling fish tales about childhood traumas and longstanding disappointments. Since we¡¯re stuck listening on a neighboring stool without much to look at, they could stand to ¡°goose the truth¡± a little themselves.
Review Score: 55