The Oak Room was certainly not what I was expecting from director Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out). Or from Black Fawn, the production company that’s given us The Heretics, Bite, and I’ll Take Your Dead among others. Rather than their usual horror fare, Calahan and writer Peter Genoway, who adapted his own stage play, give us a collection of intertwined tales of small towns, crime, misery of one form or another and father-son relationships. It’s one hell of a mix.
Steve (RJ Mitte, Breaking Bad, The Recall) left town three years ago to attend college. He promptly dropped out and became a drifter. Now, after the death of his father Gordon (Nicholas Campbell, Goon, Antiviral) he’s come to get his ashes from bartender Paul (Peter Outerbridge, Level 16, Lucky Number Slevin). However, he insists on being paid for funeral expenses first.
Not having that kind of money, Steve offers a story instead. A true story that happened at another bar, The Oak Room. Which bleeds into another and another, all of which we begin to see are related.
Set almost entirely in a variety of barrooms, The Oak Room is driven by dialogue rather than action. It’s sharply written dialogue which thankfully the cast is on a par with. Ari Millen (Hunter’s Moon, Darken), reprising his role as Michael, is the only member of the original cast. But he’s well complemented by Mitte, Outerbridge and Campbell. Campbell, in a flashback obviously, gets to relate a tale as we see it played out with his real-life son Coal Campbell playing his younger self.
Calahan took a big risk stepping so far out of his comfort zone. He didn’t just choose to do a dialogue and performance-driven film. He chose a filmed play, with the limited sets and small cast that comes with it. And he pulled it off in fine fashion. The Oak Room proves he can do more than just dish up scares, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It will be interesting to see what he chooses for his next project.
Which brings us to the “unspeakable violence” the film’s publicity promises. There is indeed one hell of a nasty bit of it at the centre of this film. But almost all of it is unseen, though not unheard. That may be the biggest surprise of all. Once I realized what was going to happen, I expected it would be shown. It’s not gratuitous, and would be a bridge to both Calahan and Black Fawn’s specialty.
But that would have pulled the focus away from the stories themselves. And The Oak Room is an exercise in the storyteller’s art, not the effects team’s craft. As you might guess that also means it’s a film you’ll need to pay attention to. The devil, and the clues, are in the details.
The Oak Room made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. There will be a second screening on August 31st. You can check Black Fawn’s Facebook page for future screenings and release plans.