‘The Oak Room’ is a slow burn mystery thriller directed by Cody Calahan and is based on Peter Genoway’s play of the same name. The movie follows the conversation between Steve (played by RJ Mitte of ‘Breaking Bad‘ fame) and Paul (Peter Outerbridge) whilst a winter storm rages outside and soon opens up like a Russian doll, revealing stories within stories. It builds tension slowly yet steadily, constantly hinting at something sinister lurking just below the surface. But that is not revealed until the climax. If the ending of ‘The Oak Room’ made you lose your head, worry not! We come bearing answers. Let’s dive right in. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Oak Room Plot Synopsis
The opening scene of ‘The Oak Room’ frames an empty beer bottle on a bar counter, with two blurry figures fighting in the background, one of them being obviously stronger than the other. The film then moves to a different period in time, and we see Steve walking into the same bar and talking to the bartender, Paul. The men know each other, and it is soon revealed that Paul was friends with Steve’s now-deceased father and is angry with Steve for not coming to his father’s funeral.
Paul promptly calls Stelli, a mysterious and violent character to whom Steve owes money, and asks him to come to the bar to confront Steve. From here on, at regular intervals in the film, we see an unknown figure, who is thought to be Stelli, driving in the snowstorm en route to the bar. Steve eventually convinces Paul to listen to a story about what happened at a bar called The Oak Room a few days ago and launches into a story with a similar setting of a bar just about to close for the night while a storm rages outside.
A well-dressed man, Richard, walks in from the cold and asks the irritable bartender Michael for a drink. Steve’s story goes on to describe the strained conversation between the two, wherein Michael tells Richard a strange story that ends with a verbal argument between the two. When Steve finishes the story, Paul berates him for the uninteresting ending and tells him a story about discovering a human finger inside a fish that he caught.
Steve is impressed by the story even though Paul tells him that it is not true. He then tells Steve about a story that his father, Gordon, told Paul. Like the previous stories, we see this one play out as a flashback, portraying Steve’s depressed father drinking and bemoaning his wasted life, claiming to be in hell. Steve then insists on telling Paul the first part of his story, which he says makes the part that he already told him more interesting.
The Oak Room Ending: Does Michael Kill Paul?
Steve launches into his second story, which describes what happened just before Richard walked into the bar. It is revealed that Michael actually killed The Oak Room’s original bartender and beheaded him, keeping the head in a duffel bag just moments before Richard entered. He also then kills Richard soon after their verbal argument starts. When Paul asks Steve how he knows this story if both the witnesses were murdered, Steve reveals that the town drunk, Thomas Coward, was hidden in the corner in a drunken stupor and saw both murders occur.
It is only now that Steve’s demeanor changes, as he coyly wonders aloud whether the murderer was confused in the snowstorm that fateful day and drove into the wrong town, killing the wrong bartender. Paul is instantly alert and urgently asks Steve what he means. Steve tells him that Michael, before murdering the bartender of The Oak Room, said to him, “Jimmy Thomson sends his regards.” Paul freezes as he, and the audience, realize that Michael was supposed to kill Paul.
The mysterious figure who is seen driving towards the pub throughout the movie is then recognized as Michael because of his watch. As the movie closes, we see Michael’s headlight shine through the bar’s windows, lighting up Paul’s face, frozen in fear. The rest is left to one’s imagination as the film fades to black and soft jazz ironically rolls in with the credits. But, we have a pretty good idea about what happens next.
The beer bottle that Steve is drinking from is seen in the opening scene of the movie, with two figures fighting in the background. Hence, we know that soon after the movie finishes, violence ensues at the bar. At least for the part we see, Steve is not involved (since Steve is wearing a white sweater and the brawling figures are both dressed in black). It is, therefore, most likely that Michael reaches the bar and proceeds to assault Paul, and since in the opening scene we also see one of the figures overpower the other, we can conclude that Paul is eventually killed by Michael.
Steve’s fate at the end of the movie remains a mystery. Since he knows about Michael’s violent nature and criminal background, Steve will obviously avoid Michael and either hides or escapes. We can also expect Steve to come back and take away his late father’s belongings from Paul’s basement since Paul is most likely dead.
There is also a small possibility that Steven is in cahoots with Michael, which is why he appears so calm even with the knowledge that the cold-blooded killer is heading towards them. In either case, Steve survives and likely gets back his father’s things while also avoiding having to pay Paul back. He does need to worry about Stelli, to whom he owes money, but that does not seem to bother him too much.
Who is Jimmy Thomson?
Jimmy Thomson is the person indirectly responsible for all 3 murders in the film, two of which are shown and one of which (Paul’s) is left to our imagination. This is an ironic twist as both the murders shown in the film are a result of Michael mistaking the bartender of The Oak Room to be Paul. Moreover, Paul’s murder, which is Michael’s actual objective, is not portrayed.
Jimmy is most likely, as Steve hints, a crime boss with who Paul has had dealings in the past. From Paul’s reaction upon hearing his name, it is obvious that those dealings did not go well and that he has a genuine fear of Jimmy, which is heightened after Steve tells him about the brutal murders at The Oak Room. Michael, then, is working for Jimmy as an assassin hunting Paul.
Why Would Steve Let Paul Get Killed?
Apart from Steve being a drifter who doesn’t seem to care too much about other people, we know that he also holds resentment against Paul for his father’s death, which he believes was because of alcohol consumption. Furthermore, Paul has asked Steve to pay back the money he spent on Gordon’s funeral and says that Steve cannot have any of his late father’s belongings until he settles his debt. It is, therefore, clear that Steve has at least a faint motive to wish harm upon Paul.
We find another clue in the scene in which Steve goes into the bathroom and starts crying with a look of great regret and self-loathing, which is understandable given what he’s just heard about his father’s last years. Just before leaving the bathroom, however, he inexplicably smiles. Only at the end of the film do we find out about the deadly secret he is carrying with him — someone is coming to kill Paul, and it explains what Steve is smiling about earlier in the film. This, combined with the resentment he shows for Paul, makes it very likely that Steve willingly lets Paul get killed and is at least partially happy about it.
Do We Get Any Clues About the Ending?
‘The Oak Room’ builds tension by raising the malevolence portrayed in each successive story. Starting with Steve’s first story, which ends with a relatively innocent verbal argument, the stories get more disturbing as we hear Michael describe killing a newborn pig as a child and, of course, Steve’s final story, which describes the murders. The rising tension points to an inevitably violent conclusion.
However, there are very few clues about how the violence will actually take place, making the ending all the more unexpected. Throughout the film, its makers have left subtle clues that tell the audience that something is amiss. Despite the characters coming off as overly dramatic or strange, in the end, we realize that they were completely “normal” given the circumstances. It’s just that the audience is not told what the circumstances are.
We see this most clearly with Michael. During Steve’s first story, Michael is agitated and comes across as slightly strange. Of course, we later find out that’s because he’s just beheaded the bartender of The Oak Room. Even the brutal murder of the old bartender, though appearing to be the deranged actions of a lunatic, is later revealed to be a mob hit, explaining that Michael is not a madman but a hitman.
Another trend in the movie is getting a glimpse of the dark side of each of the main characters. With Paul, it is his uncomfortable secret that he helped his friend Gordon drink himself to the grave and his connections with unsavory characters like Stelli and Jimmy Thomson. Michael is a brutal murderer, Richard has blood on his hand (literally), and even Gordon thinks that he’s living in hell.
Throughout the film, we do not see the sinister side of Steve. He is shown as callous, yes, but not sinister. Despite being the central character, Steve is the most mysterious one. All we are told about his last few years is that he’s been drifting, and therefore, it is difficult to ascertain just what he is capable of. Therefore, despite knowing from the opening scene that violence will ensue at the bar, the film keeps audiences guessing about how exactly it comes about and makes Steve an unlikely candidate.
It is also interesting to note that apart from Paul and Steve’s interactions and the arrival of a car at the end, all the other events in the movie are stories told by various characters, and it is equally likely that they are false. In fact, Paul admits that his story of finding a finger inside the fish he caught is false. This adds another layer of doubt to the events shown in the film and its ending.
What is The Significance of The Snow Storm and Feeling Cold?
The snowstorm and characters feeling intensely cold is an important motif in the film. In every story narrated in the film, there is a mention of someone feeling cold. In Steve’s story, Richard walks into the bar, freezing. Paul and Michael’s stories feature them feeling cold in their respective narratives. Even Gordon’s hitchhiking story mentions him feeling cold. Additionally, on the night Michael killed the bartender of The Oak Room (as well as presently), there is a heavy snowstorm.
It is plausible that the cold signifies the inherent darkness inside each of the characters that is eventually revealed in the movie. It is in this cold, or due to it, that each of the sinister events outlined in the story takes place. Additionally, the snowstorm also signifies the sequence of mistakes that finally lead to the climax of the movie.
The symbolism becomes clear when Steve wonders aloud how easy it would be to take a wrong turn in the blinding storm, which, as we find out, is why the bartender of The Oak Room is murdered and why Steve knows of the story in the first place. The filmmakers use the snowstorm as a way to hinder the characters’ perception of reality to great effect, and by the end, leave the audience feeling like they’re stuck in a snowstorm as well, shivering and blinded about what lies ahead.
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