It’s a dark and stormy night, and a man walks into a bar… Is this the set up for a horror story, or a bad joke? Maybe a little bit of both. Except when Paul (Peter Outerbridge) has just closed his bar in a dark and desolate Canadian town, and suddenly Steve (RJ Mitte) shows up out of the blue and in from the massive snow storm, Paul is decidedly not amused.
The Oak Room, directed by Cody Calahan and written by Peter Genoway based on his play of the same name begins with this moment of less-than-joyful reunion, as Paul still holds a deep resentment for the young “punk” skipping town before his own father’s funeral, leaving Paul responsible for all the expenses and emotional labor. But while The Oak Room has a rather familiar plot set-up of the return of a figure from the past, it transcends its barroom setting and soon starts to take us to an eerie realm just beyond.
The high-strung Paul starts to soften a bit when Steve offers to spin a good yarn. They’re trapped together by the harsh weather and stuck there until midnight waiting for an unnamed guest to arrive, so maybe at least they can try to make conversation for a bit. So Steve starts to tell a story about a place called “The Oak Room.” This story sounds strangely familiar… it’s about a bar… a stormy night… an unexpected visitor…
The theatrical roots show in the dialogue-driven nature of this narrative that is mostly a series of monologues, and the film maintains riveting suspense with its weaponized words. Some of the arguments can feel slightly unsubtle on the exposition, but elsewhere the storytellers prove their deft handle of language, loading each line of their tales with tension and layers of unspoken history.
In Steve’s eerie story “The Oak Room,” a stranger (Martin Roach) blusters into a remote bar seeking refuge from a brutal storm. All he wants is someplace warm — but all the bartender (Ari Millen) wants is for him to leave. The bartender is suspicious and ceaseless in his questioning, but the visitor has no patience for this, and their verbal battle is filled with endless jabs, parries, and counter-attacks. The stranger posits that despite the common stereotype, bartenders don’t love to talk — they are meant to listen, and he just wants to be listened to without getting interrogated. But soon, perhaps just to prove him wrong, the bartender starts telling his own story of a strange night…
These nested narratives are haunting tales far grimmer than ordinary barroom banter, and prompt plenty of meta-commentary about how to tell a tale that will keep audiences frozen in their seats no matter how many drinks they kick back. Paul talks back against Steve’s story with expressions of disbelief or impatience for how it’s being told — pressing him to “goose the truth” and give him a more entertaining story packed with action. But Steve claims he is telling the truth, with no embellishments. Without giving too much away, rest assured that some of the stories-within-stories turn to death and tests of will, murder and mayhem, and explore deep and boundless darkness — and sometimes the truth can be more terrifying than fiction.
The simplicity of the film’s aesthetic is a further testament that real life doesn’t need too much glossing or goosing up — the production was filmed on a single set, showing that it does not take much more than a bar and two solid scene partners to create riveting action. The skilled production design and cinematography capture a hollow hauntedness, creating a mounting sense of dread, and an inexplicable feeling that something horrible is about to emerge from the shadows.
The Oak Room is a tightly-wound coil and deftly constructed to maximize the tension in every moment, and the cast and crew’s talents warrant note — go in without too many expectations, which are bound to be deviated from anyway, and just let yourself grow mesmerized by the performances and dialogues that demand attention. This movie does not shy away from darkness and quiet — and finds that true horror unfolds when we are left isolated and alone, with no choice but to confront the intense devastation and desolation lurking deep within.