Among other things, pubs are great places to hear stories: be them tall or shaggy dog tales. Especially when there’s a blizzard raging outside, they can be a great place to while away the hours just talking. In The Oak Room, a confident thriller/ mystery from Cody Calahan it’s a haven for stories within stories within stories. The kind of ones that probably aren’t true but, for that time before the last call comes, then that’s not the point.
So a man walks into the bar. This man is Steve (Mitte, who you may know as Walt Jnr): a young drifter, who used to live down these parts – wherever the hell ‘these parts’ are. Paul (Outerbridge), a grizzled bartender who’d probably take vodka and orange as some fancy cocktail, is closing up when he swings by. Usually, he’d tell someone coming in this hour to beat it, but with this guy, he’s willing to make an exception. Some shit went down between years ago before Steve hit the trail to become a “college boy”. Now he’s back to settle his debt by way of a story. Paul isn’t convinced, despite Steve’s insistence that “a story is worth a thousand words”. Still, lucky for him this one is a doozy. What follows is a flick almost entirely set in this single barroom, and told in real-time.
Calahan does a great job with the atmosphere, making the pub seem almost warm against the snowstorm outside, and captures a small-town feel. There’s also solid lighting and blocking, and Still, for a film with this concept, the script is king. Thankfully Peter Genoway’s (adapted from his own play) is fabulous, with him writing with nuance and attention to detail that’s all too rare. For a feature debut, it shows remarkable promise. The handful of characters we meet all speak in their way, and he knows how to tell us a lot about them with their small talk. The power dynamic between them changes, and the slight feeling of existential dread builds up well in the background – even if its rarely the focus. In that respect, it’s the kind of film I can see lending itself to rewatches, with lots going on beneath the surface, and probably a tonne of clues. It’s like a jigsaw, with all the seemingly unrelated scenes combining to make up a whole, and it’s only afterwards that you see what each piece added to it.
Unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I admired the narrative trickery, though I was waiting for a reveal that didn’t come. Yeah, there are twists and turns. But while I found it smart, I wasn’t as invested in it as I thought I’d be when it began. The stories are mostly good – one involving a boy and a stillborn sow is the standout. It’s also fun to see them all start with a single coaster. They’re sad, they’re funny, they’re mysterious. Still, for all the hype that the two lead characters bestow upon them, in their occasionally repetitive exchanges between, none of them blew me away. I was often intrigued, but very seldom was I excited – the tone was samey, and sometimes indulgently slow. Paul, our bartender with a big mouth, says sometimes you’ve gotta “goose the truth”, and bend it a little to keep things interesting. I reckon the script would have benefited from him having a look over it.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s never lost my attention. Partially because of the musicality of the dialogue, but also the central performances were decent. Mitte deals with the dark material excellently, losing all memory of a cereal loving teen. And Outeridge, who did an outstanding job in finding the humanity within a bastard during Saw VI, is compelling. The moments in which they struggle to keep their emotions concealed show two actors with mastery over their material. The final act is also worth the wait, building to an ending that’s both violent and quietly haunting. It’s a good note to go out on, and something that’ll stay with you after the door swings shut. I don’t know if you’d want to become a regular at The Oak Room. But if you want something neat, and a little different, then pour yourself a drink and pull up a chair.