Hey! Did you hear the one about the drifting, prodigal, college dropout (RJ Mitte) who walks into his hometown bar that’s owned by the surly, bullying barkeep (Peter Outerbridge)? I can’t tell you exactly how it goes, but the joke is 100% upon the audience that partakes in this tepid thriller.
There’s probably more to The Oak Room than I’ve alluded to above, but not that much more, and certainly not that much more in light of the film’s real aims. Stevie is our college dropout, whose icy reception at the hands of barkeep Paul stems from the former’s long absence, which coincided with his father’s death. Paul demands that Stevie repay his debts, a request to which Stevie claims he will do so by telling a fantastical story. Specifically, it’s the story about an incident that occurred at bar not too dissimilar to Paul’s dubbed The Oak Room.
Instead of focusing on the film’s real emotional heartbeat, Calahan is far more interested in interrogating the concept of narrative itself. Mittle and Outerbridge deserve untold credit for breathing some life into two characters that are clearly dealing with large swaths of repressed guilt and trauma. That, however, is mostly shunted aside for the purposes of telling a clever narrative. Yes, there are multiple stories within stories inside of this film, and yes, each one finds creative ways to reveal and conceal details. But the simple truth is that this more of a pure structural exercise than anything else, and it’s not a particularly interesting exercise at that. I too learned about unreliable narrators in high school. By the time this started rolling towards its big third act reveal, I was very apathetic towards its conclusions. Hopefully you’ll be more invested, but I wouldn’t bet on it.