Film Review: The Keeping Room

Three women, two white sisters and their slave, are hunted by renegade soldiers at the end of the Civil War in an ambitious if overreaching home-invasion thriller laden with historical nuance.
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In The Keeping Room, a downbeat allegory about the brutalizing effects of war, the first sounds uttered aren’t even words. Somewhere in the American South in the last year of the Civil War, a black woman, presumably a slave, hauling wood down an empty country road meets a fierce-looking dog. When it begins to growl and bark, she barks right back. Then she notices the carriage stopped in the middle of the road. A half-dressed woman runs from the carriage, only to be shot in the back by the Union soldier in the carriage who appears to have just raped her. Then the first woman is herself shot in the head by another soldier who appears behind her. It’s a vicious and primal scene, a warning for what awaits the trio of women who are next in the soldiers’ path.

Julia Hart’s screenplay is short on words but strains for resonance. It’s an approach that should serve well the story’s overall conceit. This is laid out in black and white at the film’s start when General Sherman’s pithy and just slightly self-justifying “War is cruelty” quote blazes on the screen. The two soldiers, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), are advance scouts for Sherman’s main force on its punitive burn-everything march through the South at the war’s end. Only instead of scouting, they are drinking, raping and butchering their way through the land. Their seemingly random savagery, carried out in a blasé manner against any civilians they come across, is like a silent argument in support of Sherman’s quote.

Standing in their way are three women trying to scrape a living off their bare patch of farmland after all the men have presumably gone to war. Augusta (Brit Marling) is the older of two sisters. A taskmaster with a stern and haunted look, the rifle-wielding Augusta is the ward of their small plot of land, frustrated at the immature meanderings and complaints of her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld). Their mostly quiet slave Mad (Muna Otaru) seems content to do much of the heavy lifting and take Louise’s bratty verbal abuse. When a medical emergency sends Augusta looking for medicine, she attracts the attention of Moses and Henry, who set off in pursuit after leaving the corpses of yet more innocents in their wake.

This could all be viewed as a retrograde portrait of Southern gentility suffering under the depradations of the North. The women spend their days working in the fields and in a suitably rudimentary low farm building. At night they lock themselves up in the main house, a simple but clearly well-appointed residence that shows there was money in this land before the war. But instead of serving up another ill-considerd elegy for the old Southern ways, Hart tries to draw out the tensions already inherent in this ad-hoc family which looks on the verge of imploding even before the soldiers appear. In one scene, Augusta slaps Mad during an argument, only to get slapped back. The silence that follows is pregnant with meaning and Augusta’s quiet understanding that the world has changed. If the history of what lay behind that slap had been dug into at least a little, the film might have achieved some staying power. Marling and Steinfeld play it mostly straight, while Otaru brings a lilting near-innocence to Mad that still reads as a form of strength more powerful than anything her white masters can summon.

Although director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) is adept at emphasizing the woozy beauty of this pastoral setting, he is less successful at integrating the script’s horror-film structure with its weighty dialogue interstitials. The former is unfortunately all too generic, with Moses and Henry hell-bent on their female prey like some avatars of judgment out of a second-rate Cormac McCarthy novel, and the latter far less revelatory than intended.  

The filmmakers get into trouble the more they work to impart significance to the proceedings, which are played flatly as though everybody is aware that it’s all just symbolic. A third-act tragedy is reacted to so negligibly that the unintended effect is nearly comic. “Don’t know when to stop” is Moses’ all-too-pat answer to why soldiers like them are so intent on destruction when the war is so near its end. By turning them into mere signifiers of something larger (again, “War is cruelty”), the film somehow deprives these brutal men of some of their inherent evil and cheapens the life-or-death choices these women are forced into making.

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