Fantasia 2020: The Oak Room is Too Convoluted for Its Own Good
Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is a crime mystery that gets so caught up in hiding its story that it forgets to be interesting.
There’s an entire school of crime films that are influenced by the Quentin Tarantino, both by the non-linear structure of his most famous film, Pulp Fiction, and by his circuitous dialogue, which sounds like foul-mouthed poetry at its most inspired moments. A few of his imitators succeed in making films that stand out on their own, but most come off as lazy failures. Unfortunately, The Oak Room falls victim to the worst excesses of post-Tarantino crime films.
The film opens on a closeup of a bottle of beer on a bar, and we see the silhouettes of people fighting behind the bar, suggesting something violent and unexpected will happen later. But then we’re in another bar, where Paul (Peter Outerbridge) is getting ready to close as a snowstorm squeals outside. A figure bundled up in a heavy winter coat opens the door, which Paul has puzzlingly forgotten to lock, only to reveal himself as Steve (Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte), the son of one of Paul’s regular patrons, now deceased. The two have a complicated history, and Paul seethes with anger at the younger man for leaving him to cover the costs of his father’s funeral.
In order to get the bartender to give him shelter from the storm, Steve promises to tell him a story that will be worth his time. As the winds howl, he launches into a story about another bar suspiciously like the one they’re in now, except in a few towns over and called The Oak Room. In his story, another mysterious traveler (Martin Roach) stumbles out of a blizzard and into a bar after closing time while another bartender (Ari Millen) is cleaning up. (Though it’s nominally a crime thriller, The Oak Room might as well be a fantasy based on the number of bartenders who don’t lock their doors the second they’re closed.) There’s a twist in Steve’s story-within-a-story that has unfortunate implications for him and Paul, though perceptive viewers will likely have already figured it out by the time it’s obvious.
The Oak Room originated as a play, which was then adapted by the director, Cody Calahan, and the screenwriter, Peter Genoway, but it doesn’t stray far from its original trappings. Presumably, the play was a series of long monologues and two-person scenes, and the filming doesn’t stray from that set up much. There’s very little that’s cinematic about the movie, and Calahan hasn’t found a way to dial up the visual intrigue. Mitte does a nice job of playing a character who’s either so innocent he won’t last long in the world or so secretly devious that he’ll always be the last man standing. Outerbridge adds some passion to the proceedings, and his fiery exchanges with Mitte help liven up the otherwise limp film. But the two keep referencing their pasts obliquely, which is a well-worn move in the theater, where it’s difficult to stage a flashback. It’s much easier with the visual language of movies, though, but Calahan doesn’t give us enough backstory on the two characters to tell us why we should care about them.
The worst offender in The Oak Room is the dialogue, which fills the air like a cloud of smoke. Every character spits out his lines as if a timer is about to go off, almost like a screwball comedy, but not very funny or charming. Every time they want to convey the simplest sentiment, they instead talk in circles. It’s an annoying tic of writers overly influenced by Tarantino’s dialogue; they think because his characters digress so much that there’s must do the same. But his digressions are more interesting than the actual business the characters need to discuss, whereas the characters in The Oak Room don’t have much of interest to say when they’re beating around the bush. The speak empty words as if the sheer volume of dialogue can will itself into being important. Ultimately, the verbal gymnastics are meant to disguise the fact that little happens in The Oak Room, and even less of significance.
The Fantasia International Film Festival’s virtual event is composed of scheduled live screenings, panels, and workshops, taking place from August 20th to September 2nd, 2020. For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival website.