The Keeping Room (2014)

keepingroom_2014_poster
The Keeping Room (2014)
  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Daniel Barber
  • Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Brit Marling

Storyline:

Left without men in the dying days of the American Civil War, three Southern women – two sisters and one African-American slave – must fight to defend their home and themselves from two rogue soldiers who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army.

One review

  • “Women learn to shoot a gun before they bed, learn to be a man instead of a wife,” Augusta (Brit Marling) laments in The Keeping Room, a Civil War drama that combines elements of a revisionist western, a home invasion thriller, and a post-apocalyptic survival tale.

    It is 1865 in the American South, but it may as well be the end of the world. Brutality and violence choke the air. Before the film’s title appears, we see a slave girl walking down a seemingly unpopulated path. She stops at the sight of a black dog, who barks at her. She barks back and suddenly realises that she is not alone. Further up the path is a coach, whose reins are in the hands of a terrified-looking black man. A distraught white woman runs out of the coach and is shot dead by a soldier, who barely bothers to zip up his pants as he glances at the slave girl. This is no lone soldier. His companion emerges into frame, behind the slave girl who lets out one final gasp as she is shot in the head. The black man is killed and the carriage set ablaze. The passage is vicious and visceral, and establishes the dread and menace that smother the film.

    Portent is best doled out judiciously and, for the most part, director Daniel Barber maintains an astute calibration. After that initial act of savagery, Barber segues into a comparatively idyllic scene – the introduction of Augusta, her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), who have carved out a self-sufficient existence whilst the men have gone off to war and are presumed dead. Augusta has become the head of the household and protector of the homestead, getting her hands dirty and working the land with Mad whilst Louise sulks and wishes to have pretty things again. Though Louise still views Mad as their slave, the divide between master and servant has largely been bridged, with the three women sleeping in the same bedroom to protect themselves from potential intruders.

    Yet there is no safety in numbers once those two soldiers, Moses and Henry (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) set their sights on Augusta when she is forced to ride into town to seek medication for an injured Louise. Rape is a promise to be fulfilled once the soldiers set foot on Augusta’s land, and the mounting suspense is expertly paced and executed. Sexual intrigue is injected into the the mix as the stand-offs between Moses and Augusta are imbued with a dark, almost solicitous fascination. One sees traces of the courtly gentleman Moses may have been before the war made killing and pillaging the new normal. For Augusta, who was asking Mad what a lover’s touch feels like, this man may be a danger but he is also a curiosity.

    In fact, it is the ambiguous and highly charged interactions between the characters (an exchange between Louise and Henry is more primal and fraught with fright) that truly distinguish The Keeping Room. The female point of view is an uncommon one for this genre, and it is heartening to see the themes of sexual curiosity and awakening explored as well as atypical behaviour displayed. These women are not waiting in vain – they are moving on and living the best they can, and they will protect their own honour if necessary.

    What ultimately prevents the film from reaching its full potential is the heavy-handedness of Barber’s direction. The silences are too loaded, the allegorical elements too self-evident and the dialogue too self-aware. Nonetheless, The Keeping Room retains interest due to the compelling portrayals of Otaru, Steinfeld and especially Marling.

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