FANTASIA ’20— ‘The Oak Room’ is a Carefully Constructed Thriller with a Satisfying Payoff

A still from'The Oak Room'. Steve (RJ Mitte) is shown in close up here shrouded in darkness aside from the light coming from his torch. His cheekbones are lit up and angular, a heavy set and dark brow furrowed in upset and concern, looking towards an object just outlined by the torch's glow.
Black Fawn Films

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” This quote has been passed down from decade to decade, paraphrased into a much more simplified statement that has shaped a generation of writers and filmmakers: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This quote is generally accepted as the origin of “show, don’t tell”, a technique employed by writers of different mediums that allows readers or viewers to experience events through descriptive language or visuals instead of through dialogue or exposition. It is considered more powerful to show the audience your story instead of telling it to them, using certain visual cues or imagery to convey a feeling or an event that audiences can connect with, leading to further investment in a plot-line or character.

The Oak Room is the rare exception to this rule. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Cody Calahan and written by Peter Genoway in his feature length debut, The Oak Room consists of three sets of characters sharing drinks in bars and relaying tales to each other throughout the course of the film: Drifter Steve (RJ Mitte) returns home after the death of his father and reunites with old acquaintance Paul (Peter Outerbridge), mysterious businessman Richard (Martin Roach) intrudes on barkeeper Michael (Ari Millen) after closing hours, and terminally ill Kenneth (David Ferry) shares a story about a strange experience he had while hitchhiking during his youth.

A still from 'The Oak Room'. A balaclava clad and hooded man walks into a bar dressed completely in black, aside from the slight hint of a white collar peeking out. His presence is threatening. Frost on the bar's windows show that it is a cold winter's night, the walls are wooden and there is taxidermy and framed photos adorning the gloomy walls.
Black Fawn Films

While Calahan does pepper in a series of flashbacks in order to provide a backdrop to some of the stories, illustrating the weight of the characters’ words through the use of arresting visuals and incredible sound design (a certain scene taking place in a barnyard during an extremely cold winter features gusts of air so harsh you can practically feel them in your bones), the film’s crown jewel is its impeccable script, so well-constructed and well-written that every line of dialogue is purposeful, every character action a hint at a larger motivation. Genoway also never once talks down to his audience, confident in their abilities to read between the lines when it comes to his characters’ carefully constructed anecdotes, for each and every one of them carries its own message. Tackling different themes and issues such as toxic masculinity, mortality and the fear of failure, The Oak Room is a complex, nuanced feature that has much more going for it than its simple plot-line would suggest.

It is also worth noting that the film would not have worked without the efforts of its incredibly talented cast who do their best to sell the dark and twisted narratives their characters conceive. Mitte is charming and earnest in the role of a troubled young man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, while Outerbridge provides some much needed comic relief with his sardonic attempts at ill-timed humour. Millen turns in an incredibly charismatic performance as a barkeep with a troubling secret, perfectly holding his own in a showdown of wit and deceit against Roach’s enigmatic stranger. Ferry, meanwhile, gives a devastating, heart wrenching performance as a man struggling to come to terms with his own mortality and his strained relationship with his son.

Ultimately, The Oak Room is an often-times funny, often-times tragic but overall unique and compelling experience. While it does require its audiences’ full, undivided attention, patient viewers will be rewarded with a satisfying payoff that not only provides closure for every single subplot but ties them all together in a neat, perfectly twisted bow.

The Oak Room enjoyed its World Premiere at the virtual edition of Fantasia Festival 2020 on August 24th, and will screen again on August 31st

by Ahmad W

Currently based in the UK and the UAE, Ahmad W. is a poster designer, budding screenwriter and journalist from Boston and the (self-proclaimed) #1 Robert Eggers stan. His favourite films include mother!, The Witch, Black Swan, Hereditary and Scream. His claim to fame is a DM he got from Ari Aster (who has since left him on read) and his favorite pastime is spending the day in a cold, half-empty movie theater. You can follow him on Twitter at @ephwinslow.

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