THE OAKROOM Tells an Intoxicating Edge-Of-Your-Bar-Stool Story: Fantasia 2020
It’s a snowy Canadian night. A young man walks into a bar, right at closing, only to be greeted with a baseball bat. The bartender recognizes him, puts down the bat, but still isn’t too happy to see him. They have history, and it isn’t good history.
The young man, Steve, had skipped town on bad terms, and owes people money, and those people owe him a beating, and one of them is on the way their now. As Steve awaits the impending conflict, and his possible doom, he tells the bartender he has something that he’d want.
Something that’s better than “cash, drugs, guns, and booze.”
Steve has a story.
Steve has a story, about another man, on another snowy night, in another bar at closing time… and we soon witness those events, and hear other stories, until everything ties together in one of the most inventive, and original, crime films in recent years.
THE OAK ROOM is a perfectly and uniquely structured noir that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Director, Cody Callahan (who brought ANTISOCIAL to FANTASIA in 2013) crafted this amazing tale about tales into a great character piece that already feels like a cult classic.
At first glance, the premise might sound like a simple “man walks into a bar” joke, but this film, while at times is really damn, darkly funny, isn’t a comedy. What it is, however, is a wonderful spin on the neo-noir, crime film with unsavoury people, in unsavoury places… interwoven with tight and brilliant dialogue, and a fresh take on the art of storytelling.
Storytelling is the key. This whole film is based in storytelling. Steve (played wonderfully sneaky by BREAKING BAD’s RJ Mitte) has a storied history with the bartender, Paul (in an incredibly charismatic performance by genre fave Peter Outerbridge). Stevie tells Paulie a story, and within that story is another story. The bartender returns with another story, with a story within a story, and then we learn more about the previous story that perfectly sets up yet another story behind that story.
If that sounds confusing, fear not, it really isn’t, at least not on film. It’s done so perfectly and effortlessly and flows so well. It’s not so much an anthology of tales, as it’s something very different. The main narrative perfectly connects to every other story, and every story within this story is perfectly valid and crucial to each other. Everything perfectly fits. Which is all the more fascinating, since for the most part, this film is two people talking.
And that talking is the whole lifeblood of this whole picture. Which is great because it’s a fantastic script. The dialogue has a quick and realness to it, like that of a very Canadian take on FARGO (both the Coen Brothers original, but especially the Noah Hawley TV one), but also peppered with some Tarantino-esque bluntness poured in a pint of Labatt Blue… But even those comparisons are a disservice to how good Peter Genoway’s very slick and very smart script is, a script based on Genoway’s stage play of the same name.
Yes, THE OAKROOM is no rehash or approximation. This film is extremely original and uniquely its own beast. It’s really nothing like FARGO or Tarantino flicks, but fans of both will absolutely eat this up. What it does have in common with those movies is that fresh sense of “where the hell has this film been my whole life” that you get when first discovering those other ones.
This film strives on the dialogue, and the nuances of performances. And the performances are totally killer. The stories within the stories involve Ari Millen as the quirky other bartender, and Martin Roach as the mysterious traveler. Nicolas Campbell as pathos-filled Gordon with a creepy tale of his own.
And of course, the afformentioned Paul. Paul is the quintessential surly bartender. I want to go to Paulie’s bar. I want to hear that sass while getting lost in a bottle of scotch. That sass is the kind of banter that you overhear in the kinds of bars portrayed in this film.
The acting is so very riveting and engaging, especially with how things soon tie into each other. Especially how every detail slowly gets revealed, shedding light on another detail, and opening another bit of information that gives more gravitas to the previous story.
The way it builds and builds… and you think you know what’s coming next, only to get sidestepped by a sudden twist in the narrative. And as it does that, we learn more about the characters. We learn about Steve and his connection, or lack thereof to his dad. We learn about Paul’s connection to Steve’s dad. We get an idea of what’s making these characters tick and why there is that uncomfortable hostility.
Things we overlook in one story plays in another later on. It’s a meticulous web of connections and coincidences. A shuffled puzzle where the pieces won’t connect until the very end… and the tension just mounts.
This film is an entire rode that just keeps you focused and patiently listening the entire time. From the main narrative to the stories, to the stories within the stories, you’re just locked in, wanting to know what happens next. And again, aside from a few incredible bursts of violence and holy shit moments… most of these stories are just two people in a bar talking to each other.
Pulling that off is incredible, and a lot of that is the perfect combination of a perfectly cast ensemble. Every pairing is so dynamic and dynamite that you’re truly seeing incredible chemistry on screen. One can see the roots of this as a stage play, and that translation to the screen works astoundingly well. But Callahan and crew also have the added cinematic flourishes, keeping the momentum flowing.
Flourishes like the cold wintery shots, the perfect sound design that emphasizes both the rustling wind and tense drags of a cigarette, brilliant score– described by the filmmakers as “elusive and inconclusive”, the edge-of-your-bar-stool tension through editing, and the perfect set design that looks like the middle of nowhere bars that we’ve all been to.
THE OAK ROOM will tell you a story that you’ve never heard before, and just when you think you know where it’s going, they’ll “goose the truth” on you and take you somewhere else. Easily one of my fave Fantasia films thus far, and destined to be another classic, crime-suspense tale with a very northern spin.
So brave that winter storm, seek refuge in that empty bar, listen up, and grab a cold pint of this Canadian Noir, because you never know when it might be your last.
Fantasia will be running through to September 2nd.