Review: THE OAK ROOM, Northern Gothic Mystery Thriller Shows Black Fawn Family's Range
On a cold Winter’s night, Steve returns to his remote Canadian hometown, after spending three years away, drifting. He arrives at Paul’s bar at the end of the night and offers to settle an old debt with the rightly cranky bartender by telling him a story. Steve`s story begets another story which begets another story and soon all these dark tales will be woven together by deceit and violence.
Described as a Northern Gothic tale, The Oak Room punctuates scenes of highwire tension and menace with dark humour and violence. The screenplay comes from Toronto playwright Peter Genoway who adapted his own award winning stage play for the screen. Like in his play, based on a true story, the setting is a bar, and we know all kinds of stories and tales happen in bars. The Oak Room was directed by Black Fawn’s Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Antisocial 2 and Let Her Out).
Honestly, never before has anyone from the Black Fawn family worked with material of this strength and verbal aggression. Where every film in their roster leading up to this has always been about the action everything in The Oak Room is driven by the dialogue. Which is part of the reason why The Oak Room premeditatively becomes a film that exceeds expectations. When you read about it on paper and regard Calahan’s previous work, how does a Northern Gothic thriller work when Calahan and Black Fawn’s collective works up to The Oak Room have been efficiently effective works of straight up horror? However, almost immediately, you know that The Oak Room is going to be a different film.
It starts with the usual rolling shots over a snowy landscape dotted with tall pines trees. With it there is this somber, primal, and foreboding piece of music created by longtime Black Fawn collaborator Steph Copeland. Cut to a lone beer on a bar counter and in the background, out of focus, punches are landing somewhere, on someone. The tone has been set. Sit down and grab a drink at The Oak Room.
What is different this time is the way that Calahan statically frames this new film, the way he holds the vertical line and refrains from using excessive flourish with the camera. Even when it comes to real acts of horror Calahan chooses to play it close to his chest. The real excitement and action in The Oak Room came by way of Genoway’s intense dialogue from his play and Calahan adheres to that in his adaptation.
When The Oak Room was first announced director Cody Calahan said in his director statement, “I’ve always wanted to make a film that was dialogue driven but also one that could blend the genres of drama, thriller and neo-noir together. It really feels like my first film again because I feel like we have something to prove to both ourselves and the audience. This film is certainly going to be challenging for our filmmaking team but we’re confident that this story will deliver a unique and memorable experience.”
Challenge accepted. Achievement unlocked. This is the strongest screenplay anyone from Black Fawn has worked with to date and Calahan proves he is up to the task.It is always curious when a director attempts something new. It is always exciting when they succeed at it. Though he has not strayed that far from what he had done before The Oak Room still required a different approach to the storytelling. It is almost as if Calahan had to relearn the art of restraint after being allowed to go whole hog into the horror genre for all these years.
He treats the source material respectfully, yet, even with Calahan’s reverence of the screenplay, his restraint and focus when presenting it, all of this would go unrewarded and insult the wordsmithing of Genoway if the actors chosen could not hold their end of the deal. Fortunately, so fortunately, that is not the case here.
There are three familiar faces in The Oak Room, especially for Canadians, with Peter Outergbridge, Martin Roach and Nicholas Campbell. With decades of experience behind this trio you can count on them to be good in their roles. How fortunate it was for Calahan to have this depth of talent at his fingertips.
And we should give a shoutout to David Ferry as well. The Newfoundlander may not be as well known or as instantly recognizable as this other trio but he has no less paid his dues with a career that rivals Campbell's. His is a small role, deep into the story rabbit hole, but it serves a purpose and is performed with empathy.
Outerbridge as bar owner Paul comes charging out of the gates with bristled aggression. You also have the sense that he is really, really enjoying himself here. Roach and Campbell fill in two of the supporting roles. Roach has been a journeyman in the Canadian film and television industry and in The Oak Room bears this attitude that he is simply tired of your shit. Campbell is nearly unrecognizable with a grizzled look and a few extra pounds, it took a moment to figure out it was him. Still, there is no denying that his small contribution is the film's most emotionally wrought performance.
The veterans are countered by two young actors on the rise. Both come out of much loved television series, Orphan Black and Breaking Bad. Ari Millen is the sole cast member who starred in the original stage play production. To him belongs all the physical manifestations of anger and malice in the film. RJ Mitte is excellent as Steve. He bounces off of Paul's verbal attacks with a perceived naivete yet by way of the film's omniscience we can see harbors a lot of resentment and anger at not being taken seriously.
The Oak Room is the right combination of excellent source material, respectful direction that aims to present the mood, tone and menace brought through the dialogue rather than ram it down our throats. Straying from the well worn path is one of the best things that Calahan could have done for his directing career.
It is all delivered by top notch veteran actors balanced by two talented young men. Every one is committed to their part to play and they have done it really, really well.
Each and every story is engaging, provoking and commands a response from the viewer. The film proves once again that sometimes all you need is a good story to captivate your audience. The Oak Room has at least three.
The Oak Room, ladies and gentlemen, is what symmetry looks like. This is the stars and the planets aligning. Everyone should be pleased with what they've achieved here, bringing Genoway’s stage play to the big screen.
(The Oak Room had market screenings during the virtual edition of the Marche du Film. Surely there will be festival dates in its future.)