In a dark and dingy bar in the middle of the Canadian wilderness during a fierce storm, two men are drawn together. The weary old barkeep, Paul (Peter Outerbridge), is not happy to see the prodigal son Steve (RJ Mitte) return. Having missed his father’s death and funeral, Paul is eager to have some recompense for the duties he has fulfilled on Steve’s behalf. Steve offers to pay what is owed with a story, a story which when told will change the dynamic between the men and the fundamental question of whom is owed what between the two.
The Oak Room feels like a screenplay filmed, rather than adapted. It’s driven by performance and dialogue and does suffer a little from the Tarantino issue of everyone sounding alike and just a little too well-prepared for this encounter at the end of the world. Where it feels entirely unique is in it’s palpable sense of foreboding. It’s a deeply fateful and sinister nest of shaggy dog tales, greatly enhanced by cinematographer Jeff Maher’s intense camera which surrounds our characters in shadow and mystery. Although the dialogue occasionally doesn’t quite ring true, the performances from RJ Mitte and Peter Outerbridge are fantastic and completely absorbing.
The meaning of it all is insinuated in the narrative’s repetition. Each story told returns to a man desperately seeking shelter from the cold, only to walk into some form of malice or danger. It’s about death and how it sneaks up on people. The grinding routine and bitter pains of the world distract from the abrupt and violent ends that await us all. The crime/mafia aspect may feel a little contrived and at odds with the stark existential chill of the rest of the story but it’s only because director Calahan and screenwriter Genoway have managed to so acutely tap in to a very real and relatable sense of dread.
What draws me back to The Oak Room is the atmosphere. This is very efficient story-telling and yet has created the impression of an entire world of characters all sadly affected by the same sense of dread, of a day coming to a close. It compares very favourably to Abel Ferera’s Siberia, keeping it’s footing where that film slipped. The Oak Room is a frightening and effective claustrophobic thriller that keeps you guessing and has you scanning the frame for a threat you can feel is coming but can’t quite see.