Guy Walks Into a Bar-THE OAK ROOM (2021)

Review by Robert Rosado @Robby_Horror

“I’ve got a story for you,” a provocative invitation that can yield many disparate outcomes and consequences. It is typically meant to include the listener in a humorous anecdote, or for telling tales out of school. But in Cody Calahan’s sinister thriller, The Oak Room, it is the hook with which to lure the viewer in, layering one twist after another, not allowing the tension to abate until the closing shot.

During a raging blizzard, drifter Steve (RJ Mitte) goes back to his hometown to retrieve his father’s cremated remains from grizzled bartender and family friend, Paul (Peter Outerbridge). Angered by Steve’s callous return, Paul is not about to let him disappear again without a large financial debt being paid first. Steve, however, offers to tell him a story as compensation.

With its limited settings, small cast of characters, and deliciously literate dialogue, one can easily imagine seeing this live on stage. The razor-sharp script was adapted by Peter Genoway from his own stage play, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t cinematic. Directed for maximum tension by Calahan, The Oak Room begins with a deadly confrontation, devoid of context. Although we don’t know who is involved or why this is happening, the opening seconds ignite a threat of violence which hangs like a specter over each interaction that follows. Calahan is aided in this regard by Jeff Maher’s moody lighting and foreboding camerawork, Steph Copeland’s eerie score, and certainly Mike Gallant’s meticulous editing which ties every thread together. For a film with multiple inherent restrictions, and stories within stories being told at times, it manages to neither bore nor confuse us. 

RJ Mitte, of Breaking Bad fame, is the most recognizable face in the cast. As the mysterious Steve,  he rarely shows his full hand and keeps the audience off-balance. Having said that, his role is essentially a narrative conduit for other, more intriguing figures. Peter Outerbridge is exceptional as Paul, his body language and delivery exposing years of resentment and anger. However, it is Ari Millen who viewers will probably remember most as Michael. Millen originated this role in its theatrical incarnation, and his performance here is integral to the film’s success.

The power of perception plays a vital role in the telling of this story. The Oak Room let’s us think we understand a scene only to have the full context revealed later, shifting our allegiance from one character to another as a result. Those who pay close attention to the themes and cleverly hidden clues will be rewarded with a knockout denouement, one that feels devious yet completely earned. If you have a penchant for slow-burn thrillers, I have no doubt you’ll be satisfied with this one.

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