Fantasia Review: The Oak Room

Canadian crime labyrinth cuts deep and cold

A man walks into a bar. It's the classic set-up to a gag, but the only humor to be found in chilly Canadian noir The Oak Room is of the gallows flavor.

The man in question is Steve (RJ Mitte), the prodigal son who rolls back into the tiny town of Kirkland Lake in rural Ontario, a place near nothing and on the way from nowhere to nowhere in particular. He disappeared a few years ago, dropped out of college, didn't even come back for his father's funeral, and left bartender Paul (Peter Outerbridge) to pick up the cost of the coffin. Now he's just wandered back like he's just come back from the bathroom, and Paul is none too happy about this particular iceman coming, in the middle of a storm, unannounced and unwelcome. Add insult to injury, all he's come back with is a beer mat and a story.

And that's when The Oak Room really starts to turn in upon itself, sliding like tires over black ice. The men never leave the bar, but instead tell competing stories that layer over each other. Steve, a dolt with no clue how to unwind a yarn, increases the ire of Paul at every word (after all, if you want a tall tale told well, who better than the professional bullshitter behind the bar?) "Goose the story," Paul brags. Yet the inversions in Steve's shaggy dog story are increasingly clearly a trap - but for who, exactly?

Canadian production house Black Fawn pretty much bows to no one when it comes to low-budget horror The Heretics and Bite, but took an interesting turn with their supernaturally-tinged, gory crime drama I'll Take You Dead. There was a dour sense of reality, of small-town scrabble, that pulled the film deeper into reality: The Oak Room reaches the same balanced place, but from the other direction. It looks and feels like a modern, frost-bitten noir, but the oppressive intimacy of the bar places the two men in a claustrophobic death grip from the moment Steve shakes the snow off his boots. That's just as much creditable to Jeff Maher (Black Fawn's go-to cinematographer) and his use of browns and shadows does just as much to build the tension as the furious dance, perfectly executed by Mitte and Outerbridge, between Steve and Paul.

"A man walks into a bar" may be the classic set-up to a gag, but this time, the punchline will leave you reeling.

The Oak Room is screening as part of the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Aug. 20-Sept. 2,

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Fantasia 2020, Fantasia International Film Festival, The Oak Room, Black Fawn, Jeff Maher, RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge

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