Review: The Keeping Room
PLOT: Three Southern women trying to maintain during the end of the Civil War are suddenly confronted with a pair of violent Union soldiers who intend to take everything from them.
REVIEW: Daniel Barber's THE KEEPING ROOM is a morose little tale, a grim and intimate look at the end of the Civil War through the eyes of three Southern women who are forced to survive on their own. It's being called a Feminist Western, which is bound to turn off traditionalists who like their westerns filled with rugged men and a pitiless moral code, but it should be known that Barber's film, written by Julia Hart (the screenplay ended up on the 2012 Black List), is at times just as pitiless and rugged as any latter day example of the genre.
Fans of traditional westerns are also likely to be irked by THE KEEPING ROOM's more abstract elements, such as its self-consciously deliberate pace, which will seem lethargic to some. Barber's film has a tendency to whisper when other movies in the genre would shout, and there's no celebration in any of these characters' minor victories. In one critical sequence, the main character wonders if it's the end of the world, and in an odd way THE KEEPING ROOM has the somber tone of an end of the world movie, where people claw at each other for every last scrap even as they're powerless to stop a larger apocalypse. If you paired THE KEEPING ROOM with THE ROAD, you'd have one hell of a depressing - but fitting - double feature.
The film's cruel atmosphere is established right away, beginning with a disturbing scene involving two Yankee scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) cooly killing two women and a man before lighting a coach on fire. Said scouts are part of General Sherman's advancement on the South, and they're setting the stage with some wanton, drunken mayhem. Their paths cross with Augusta (Brit Marling), a lonely woman caring for her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), who is now not so much of a slave as Augusta's noble helper. With most of the men from their region gone off to war, these women are essentially alone in the world, awaiting an uncertain fate as the Union army gradually encroaches. Augusta's encounter with the Yanks is intense but she walks away unharmed, but that's not meant to be the last of it, as the war has essentially sapped these men of all good will and conscience.
The bulk of the narrative rests on the plight of Augusta, Louise and Mad as they protect their farm from these violent renegades, giving the film a sort of siege-movie mentality in its second half. THE KEEPING ROOM works best when it's content to be a straightforward thriller, as Barber mounts considerable tension and jolts us several times with loud reports of gunfire. But those looking for explosive bloodshed or satisfying retribution won't find much of that here, as even deserved vengeance can't lift the pall hanging over the land.
Said world is beautifully shot by Martin Ruhe, bringing to mind the films of Terrence Malick. In fact, Malick's presence is felt throughout; the characters have a pattern of waxing poetic or speaking in platitudes the way they would when Malick is feeling particularly philosophical. That said, if the dialogue is not always precisely believable, it's at least consistent with Barber's melancholy vision.
Marling has probably never been better, playing a woman who keeps digging for strength even in the face of increasingly formidable odds. Otaru brings a much-needed tenderness to the role of Mad, a character somewhat stranded in her circumstance and trying to make the best of it. Steinfeld doesn't quite have the same material to work with, but she's a very convincing crier, and her character is given plenty of reasons to cry indeed. Worthington is good, but a little miscast, his rogue Yankee is a little too handsome and thoughtful, and it comes across as a movie star performance instead of a genuine portrayal of tortured soul. Soller's turn as a psychotic drunkard rings much truer; he's the brutality of war personified.