A guy walks into a bar. Only instead of beginning a joke, he comes with a story, a debt, deep secrets about to bubble to the surface, and even deeper wounds. Such is the set up for director Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room, the latest offering from Canadian filmmaking crew, Black Fawn Films (I’ll Take Your Dead, Bed of the Dead). Their latest is a chilly, noir-inspired tale that watches like Southern Gothic in the Great White North and just held its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
In the midst of a brutal snow storm, Steve (Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte), a drifter no one has seen hide nor hair of in years, returns to a deserted bar in his home town. It’s a place where he has a past, especially to the owner, Paul (Peter Outerbridge, Nikita). And they do what people so often do in taverns and public houses, they trade stories. On one hand, it’s simple; on the other, the exact opposite.
The Oak Room plays out as a series of vignettes, of stories and stories within stories. Peter Genoway’s script loops in and around on itself, revealing the true link between Steve and Paul, this place, their lives. Links even the story tellers don’t always realize. There’s murder and childhood trauma and mistaken identities, small pieces that turn out to be parts of a much larger, more tangled, twisted tale. All with a ticking clock as a mystery man with harm on his mind creeps ever closer.
These stories are small, contained yarns within the larger narrative fabric. Single-location sketches played by two or three actors. Calahan and Genoway layer them, bouncing back and forth, unfurling tidbits of information and slivers of secrets kept close to the vest. While some of the links turn out to be more arbitrary than initially played up, and other connections feel tenuous, overall, the filmmakers do a strong job of ratcheting up the pressure, hinting at the potential for violence.
The Oak Room is a nice looking film. Calahan and cinematographer Jeff Maher, another part of the Black Fawn family, make excellent use of the available space and the peculiar landscape of a barroom. Each aside takes place largely in a single room, but the way they film, it never feels limited by the surroundings, playing with framing, camera position, depth of field, and various other cinematic tools to keep the picture visually interesting and engaging to the eye. A cool, muted color palate and these constrained environments serve to enhance the mood of being trapped in a story over which you have no control, further escalating the tension.
With the fractured, piecemeal approach to storytelling, at times The Oak Room is like watching an anthology, or a collection of urban legends. It’s a big idea with major ambitions, on a much-less-than-major budget. The individual tales and scenes can meander on a bit too long and could probably be trimmed in places. I don’t know that the story comes together in a fully satisfying way in the end, but the slow-burn ride is one worth taking, offering up a tight, effective little chiller that attempts to tell a story in an unusual way. [Grade: B-]