The Oak Room (2020)

A man walks into a bar…

It is the beginning of a gazillion jokes – although in the case of The Oak Room, it is a recurring, deadly serious scenario that stages the crisis of masculinity, the burden of guilt, and the hell that we create for ourselves on earth. 

The first man to walk in is Steve (RJ Mitte, who played Walter White Jr. in television’s Breaking Bad), arriving late at night in a snowstorm as bartender Paul (Peter Outerbridge) is closing up. Steve left town – and his widowed father Gordon (Nicholas Campbell) – three years earlier to study at university, but dropped out and became a drifter instead. He has now returned unannounced to pick up Gordon’s ashes from Paul, but Paul first wants Steve to pay back his debts to both Paul and to the loan shark Stelly who, supposedly called by Paul, will be there by midnight. Violence, from the start, is on its way.

Steve (RJ Mitte)

Steve has no money, but he does have a story to tell – about another man, Richard (Martin Roach), who similarly walks into another closing bar (The Oak Room of the title) during another wintry night to another cold reception from another bartender, Michael (Ari Millen, reprising his rôle from the orignal play). This story will be interrupted variously by an inserted story which Michael tells Richard about a formative experience in his childhood, and by a second story which Paul tells about Gordon’s disappointments in life, which itself contains a story that Gordon tells about an experience he had when he was younger (in which he is played by Campbell’s own son Coal). Meanwhile an unseen driver sets out through the snowstorm to the bar, bringing the fate that eventually catches up with us all. 

Michael (Ari Millen) and Richard (Martin Roach) in The Oak Room

Adapted from Peter Genoway’s 2013 play of the same name by Genoway himself (with help from director Cody Calahan), this feels like a modest film, confining itself mostly to the interiors of several bars in the Canadian hinterlands, with only occasional digressions to the backroads that run between these establishments, or to the pig farm where one adult character spent his childhood. Yet if these limited sets – and the sharpness of Genoway’s dialogue – betray the film’s theatrical origins, DP Jeff Maher deploys canted angles and sinuous tracking shots to remind us that this truly is a film (more than one character comments that the snowstorm visible outside the window looks “like a movie”). One narrative leads (and leaks) into another and yet another, whether sequentially or via interpolation, in an increasingly convoluted layering of tall tales and true which together paint a broader mosaic – and this modernist narrative structure makes the preoccupations of The Oak Room transcend both theatre and cinema to a more general disquisition on the nature of storytelling itself (as all at once entertaining time filler, confessional, and pricker of conscience).

The Oak Room is a strictly male affair, unfolding in drinking holes where men pass through, get drunk, spill their guts and share their souls, all in the complete absence of women (who never get so much as a mention in all these mano-a-mano word duels). Here resentments simmer, and masculine aggression is never far away – but even as a violent crime thriller begins to take shape within and between all the criss-crossing narratives, there emerge more universal themes of adolescence and estrangement, of moving on and leaving behind, as gruff, tough, haunted masculinity takes a battering. Like Steve, director Calahan left the widowed father who raised him to seek his own fortune as a filmmaker – and he has even dedicated the film to his own young son Bodhi River Calahan. Here the helmer is staging a homecoming of sorts to work through issues of intergenerational division and paternal legacy. This is a mystery that comes with increasing tension – but the dominant mood in The Oak Room is of small-town sadness, regret and fatalism, with everyone keeping an eye on the ticking passage of time and awaiting the hell that they know is inevitably coming for them. 

From a filmmaker best known for working in horror (Antisocial, 2013; Antisocial 2, 2015; Let Her Out, 2016), The Oak Room represents something of a departure down the by-roads of different generic backwoods. It is very good indeed – and if the film’s form has the feel of a classic barroom joke, then soon that will ramify rhizomatically into a joke within a joke alongside another joke, all incomplete yet building to an elaborate punchline that will inspire less a tipsy guffaw than the sort of existential dread that comes from seeing one’s own emptiness reflected in the bottom of the bottle.

© Anton Bitel