It is a certainly a difficult task for a doctor to stay completely healthy while working with sick people- the occasional flu is unavoidable. The same is true, however, for psychiatrists: when dealing with a wealth of cases and personalities that are out of the ordinary, to say the least, the quest to fully retain a strong grip on reality becomes a rather troublesome endeavour. This is certainly a reality for doctor Rahal, the main character of the short film ‘The Red Oak’, which sees him attempt to get over an intensifying number of dark thoughts and visions.
A real virtue of this film is its presentation style: it differs from many other psychological thrillers in the idea that it never establishes a sense of normality from which it could subsequently deviate, thus marking a contrast and leading to the character’s psychological decline. Rather, it paints an unclear and obscure set of circumstances from the get-go, which means that we never truly know what’s real and what’s not, who’s who and what’s going on. Viewers can only assume, then strengthen a belief, only to see it turned completely upside down two minutes later. ‘The Red Oak’ keeps you guessing, and thus manages to maintain interest levels very high up until the end.
The plotline, while not grounded in any kind of solid reality, follows an almost ‘Shutter Island’ like pattern, with Rahal not only making sense of the surrounding, extrinsic elements that he has to face, but also going on an internal journey to discover who he really is. His troubled psyche paints a sombre picture which is, most likely, the sum of the entirety of sick, psychotic stories he’s heard over the years from his patients.
These have taken their toll over him, as we can clearly see: the editing is spot-on, and manages to convey an uneasy feeling filled with tension and macabre elements. The quickly-alternating pictures in Rahal’s head- a forest, a pair of evil eyes, devilish representations- are supplemented with a terrifying cacophony of sounds, creating an atmosphere that situates itself in contrast with scattered moments of calm: brighter colours and a soothing accompanying score. This style of exposition works very well: sometimes, bits of the more intense, dramatic soundtrack feel a bit unnecessary and out of place, but overall, the film plays around well with its comprising elements.
A minor inconsistency is in the acting: at times, doctor Rahal’s character seems unconvincing, other time a bit overacted, but mostly the actor playing his role does a great job portraying the strained psyche of the main character. Of course, the plot is formulated in such a way that one point even his status as a doctor at a mental asylum comes under scrutiny- the less an audience knows, the more it can be terrified. Its over-reliance on close-ups could be counteracted by utilizing at least a few more wide shots: it is only natural that a character-based script would feature a lot of the former, but the environment- whether it is real or just a figment of imagination- and Rahal’s position within it is equally important.
‘The Red Oak’ manages to transmit its complex array of disturbing thoughts and unnerving moments without ever resorting to gore or gruesome imagery- this is a big plus for a production in an era where an overwhelming majority of projects resort to these cheap ‘tricks’. While not overly remarkable, ‘The Red Oak’ successfully stands out and with a bit more refinement and polish, it could be a superb production.
Review written by Julian A. L.