Review by Sean Boelman
Adapted by Peter Genoway from his own play, it’s clear from the get go that The Oak Room likely works better on the stage than the screen. However, because of some excellent performances and some well-crafted dialogue, the film is just thrilling enough to make up for the fact that it isn’t particularly cinematic.
The movie follows a young man who walks into a bar after closing time with a story to tell, much to the chagrin of the bartender with whom he shares a rocky past. It’s a very dialogue-driven film and Genoway writes his lines in a way that flows quite well, but unfortunately, the movie is lacking in a few other key areas.
One of the frustrating things about the film is that its pacing is a little inconsistent. While the payoff is there, the lead-up to it moves in awkward ways. Genoway does a good job of replicating the feel of an old-school bar story, the narrator losing his place or going on tangents that detract from the matter at hand, but this doesn’t sustain sober interest for an hour and a half.
And then there’s the meta-commentary on storytelling itself. The playful banter, that comes mostly in the beginning of the movie, about what makes a good story feels like an excuse for a weak and unexciting opening act. It’s a cheap way of telling the audience to stick with it, because there’s something more exciting to come.
The character development in the film is also somewhat lacking. Everyone has heard a story that is like “I know a guy who knew a guy,” and so on and so forth, and this is a feature-length manifestation of that. There are so many degrees of separation between the layers of action that it’s easy to lose interest.
Still, the actors do a very good job in their roles. The theatrical nature of the script lends itself to performances that are a bit big and showy, so they probably wouldn’t work in a different context, but they are pretty satisfying here. The biggest standout is Peter Outerbridge as the bartender, but RJ Mitte and Ari Millen also give solid turns.
Obviously, the movie is pretty minimalistic on a visual level given its very script-centric nature, but the production design does a good job of making viewers feel like they are escaping the cold in a small-town bar. The only real benefit of this being a film rather than a stage production is that this level of detail is able to be executed.
The Oak Room has some good things working in its favor, but it’s a little too self-important and uneven to be satisfying. Still, the payoff is worth the otherwise inconsistent thriller that precedes it.
The Oak Room screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2. An encore screening (geoblocked to Canada) occurs on August 31 at 11:30pm.