On a cold winter night during a snowstorm, a man walks into a bar. The bar is deserted, but for the bartender. After a drink and some conversation, he offers to tell the bartender a story that starts like this:
On a cold winters night during a snowstorm, a man walks into a bar. The bar is deserted but for the bartender.
You might be sensing the start of a pattern, and you are not wrong. The Oak Room weaves together several stories, each told between a man and a bartender and appearing separate until they are not, of course.
The Oak Room is based on a 2013 play of the same name, adapted for the screen by original playwright Peter Genoway, and as with the play, the script here is heavy on dialogue and exposition. This is appropriate for a story about storytelling, and it gives the actors in each scene plenty of opportunities to shine.
RJ Mitte (best known as Walter Jr. on Breaking Bad) is Steve, the first storyteller. Making his way into the bar that his father used to haunt to pay off an old debt to the bartender, Paul (Canadian character actor Peter Outerbridge, whose list of credits is as long as I am tall), which he proposes he can settle with said story.
The chemistry between these two is immediate, as though they really do have years of grievance between them. Mitte managers to walk the line between innocent and baleful gracefully, while Outerbridge plays with the line between liking this kid he used to know and wanting to be done with him forever.
As each story gets told, we cut back and forth between the story and its teller. In some cases, we end up watching a story that is being told within another story. Despite this, it is never hard to keep track of where we are and what is happening. This is a testament to a well-crafted script and good direction from Cody Calahan.
Not to mention the cast, which also includes Ari Millen, Martin Roach (both of The Expanse), along with two more iconic Canadian character actors in David Ferry and a barely recognizable Nicholas Campbell. That’s a lot of talent on set, and it shows in nearly every scene.
Each scene is beautifully shot as well. Each shot is captured in a wide aspect ratio that lets you admire details from around the rooms where the scenes occur. I know it sounds weird to call tiny, dingy, northern Canadian bars beautiful, but between the neon Molson signs and cheesy wall decorations, the production design team has captured what a little, dingy Canadian bar feels like.
Will this film be for everyone? I don’t quite think so. Plays adapted to the screen like this are an actor’s playground but break the rule of show, don’t tell by design, and while I can’t say anything without spoiling something, it’s possible that how each of these stories resolves may not be satisfying to every viewer. Still, for me, The Oak Room is one of the best films of Fantasia 2020.
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