There is something profoundly primal in being isolated in a room during a snowstorm or some other off-the-rails event. Having only a story to listen to take you places gradually pulling you from the darkness of unknowing to a brightly lit place where you get to walk out of with a new narrative under your belt. The Oak Room bets big on storytelling and chases in on the raw talent of its amazing cast.
Directed by Cody Callahan, The Oak Room stars RJ Mitte of Breaking Bad fame and Peter Outerbridge who succeed to establish a dynamic that makes an empty bar seem like the center of the universe. With a good story as its sole universal currency, the film starts off with Steve (Mitte) walking into a closing bar during a snowstorm and the barkeep Paul (Outerbridge) greeting him with a grip around his baseball bat. The bar, which would normally be seen as a sanctuary is initially a place of conflict stirred up by the unwanted guest.
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The viewer is kept in the dark as far as why Paul is greeting Steve with hostility. We are slowly hand-fed bit by bit as to what Steve did to deserve such a welcome and why did he return in the first place. To settle his debt towards Paul who paid for the funeral costs of Steve’s father (which Steve bailed on), Steve offers a story of what happened in a bar, just like this one, during a snowstorm, just like this one.
Initially, Paul refuses, claiming that every object in the bar has an x value. From the bottles and stools to the half-empty pack of smokes he casually tosses on the bar to illustrate his point. Yet he grants Steve the right to tell him why he should be interested in the story in the first place and the viewer gets pulled into a loop (or a lesson) of telling a story and goosing the truth. Ironically, the story itself turns out to have a life-or-death price tag.
The Oak Room builds up the narrative as several stories become intertwined with one another and tied together with nail clipping tension. Landing somewhere between the anxiety of the characters telling and living through the stories and the dread we feel as viewers. We start imagining the instances of such events in our local bars and pit stops. When it comes to the structure, the film feels like it’s flirting with an anthology format. Yet, it manages to tie the knot and close the loop. The film also avoids the anthology pitfall of piling up stories and failing to close them down in a cohesive way. Keep in mind that The Oak Room is not a story about a story but a narrative about storytelling.
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It’s worthy of mentioning that the original score composed by Steph Copeland serves as the perfect soundtrack for walking the razor’s edge between the rigid tension of the film’s emotional peaks and snapping out of the moment and pulling a step back.
In the era of stunning visuals and over-the-top efforts spent on presentation (and not nearly as much on the screenplay and storytelling), The Oak Room manages to create a devil’s crossroads out of your typical middle of nowhere bar. Serving as a lesson in mystery storytelling per excellence. Atypical movie for sure, yet the old mantra that the journey matters more than the destination doubles down for this cinematic offering. It leaves no room for phony writing and flat, plot shells of characters. For fans of tension, mystery, and premier theater-level acting, The Oak Room is a film not to be missed.