Adapted from a play by Peter Genoway – which might be a Canadian equivalent of Conor McPherson’s The Weir – this is a low-key yet intense drama set in two bar-rooms on snowy Saturday nights a week apart, where lone semi-strangers show up just after closing time in need of warmth, drink and expiation and missions related to death must be completed.
Late at night, ski-masked young man Steve (RJ Mitte) ticks off wary, short-fused barman Paul (Peter Outerbridge), who reaches for a baseball bat to see off the intruder – who turns out to be the estranged, drifter son of a veteran drinker whose ashes Paul has kept in his fishing tackle box. Annoyed as he was at a threatening intruder, Paul is angrier still that Steve has turned up back in town and lays into Steve for abandoning his old man, Gordon (Nicholas Campbell). Steve offers to settle his debts by telling a story … of that night, a week earlier and a town over, when a well-dressed man (Martin Roach) showed up similarly at the end of play, and another barman (Ari Millen) offered him a free drink – in the wrong glass – and some reminiscences that also verge on barbed assault.
‘A story is worth a thousand words,’ we’re told several times – and here tales are told as currency but also in aggression, with Paul illustrating the bar-room skill of ‘goosing’ a story (in his case, literally a fish story) but also dredging up a flashback of his own, in which Steve’s father recounts an early encounter with a man who left a lifelong, negative impression on him. Inside the stories-within-stories structure is quite a tight little crime drama with horror overtones, but the film impresses for its quiet, melancholy conviction. Guys telling stories in bars – with no women getting a look-in (no one in this world has a visible wife or mother, and pursuit tales are all about fish rather than sex) – makes for a film which showcases underacting (though everyone gets to flash menace at one point or another) and allusiveness.
The Oak Room requires concentration, but for a film which is almost literally all talk it’s a gripping experience – and every piece of the mosaic, including the rude drunken kid (Amos Crawley) who plays a minor but key role in two of the inset yarns, is there for a reason. Genoway scripts, and Cody Calahan calms down from his flamboyant horror mode (the Antisocial films, Let Her Out) to craft a perfect chamber piece.