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Despite the stereotype that the Western genre is basically dead, occasionally being revived by big number directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, the truth is the genre is still popular in the indie circles. One of them is The Keeping Room, which originally premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, but it took two years for it be released in many markets.
Set towards the end of the American Civil War, The Keeping Room focuses on a household of women in the South, Augusta (Brit Marling), her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). As the Union Army approaches their home the household face a threat from two rogue marauders (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller), who are looking to rape and pillage.
The Keeping Room was based on a blacklisted screenplay by Julia Hart and director Daniel Barber’s follow-up to his OAP vigilante thriller Harry Brown. The movie has a terrific introduction showing the two Union soldiers killing a woman they just raped and then executing any witnesses. It was visceral and a showcase of the hell they can unleash. There isn’t any word of dialogue spoken in the first seven minutes as Barber showcases his ability with visual storytelling as he sets up what the soldiers are willing to do and the women toiling on their small farm.
After this introduction we see the dynamic between the women showing that Augusta has to become the head of the household, taking up the man’s duties. She has a close relationship with Mad when working on the farm and Mad is willing to stand up to Augusta on occasion despite her status. Louise, on the other hand, is a bit of a spoiled brat, refusing to work, and instead dressing up and treats Mad with contempt. Despite Louise being the most unlikable out of the trio, Steinfeld is the best performer, both as the brat and later as the young woman who is petrified with fear when the marauders attack – being perfectly believable in this extraordinary situation. All three actresses were strong in their roles: Marling being the strong willed one that is essentially Katniss Everdeen because of abilities with a musket and being the main carer. Otaru was in her first leading role as Mad and she does a decent job, but she does play up to a stereotype. All three actresses are able to hit their emotional high and low points with ease.
Out of the two marauders, the younger man played by Soller is the more evil and sadistic out of the pair – the one who takes pleasure from raping women. Worthington is calmer and more measured and as the actor says in the behind the scenes, he sees his interactions with Augusta as a form of flirting. It’s a change from the usual dynamic of the older man being the evil one and the younger member having some sort of conscience.
The Keeping Room was marketed as an action-thriller but that is misleading. There’s hardly any action in the movie nor is it a siege movie with a group of women having to hold off a rampant band of Union Soldiers or bandits who want to take their land, their wealth or simply have their wicked way. Instead, it’s more of a thriller and more like Straw Dogs than Assault on Precinct 13. Barber’s experience on Harry Brown made sure there was plenty of tension for required scenes like when Augusta is in the general store where the marauders are based and when one of the marauders is coming up the stairs as two of the women hide out in a bedroom.
The other winning aspect of The Keeping Room is the realism; its presented with the violence and basic toil of life in this period. The women have to work hard on the land – whether it be hoeing soil to plant crops or going through the forest with a musket. When violence does happen it is shocking as brains and blood go flying. Because of the war, resources like medicine are low and there are few people around – making life even harder for people living in the area.
The idea of the Union army having bad eggs in them has been explored before, Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales joined the Confederacy because the Union killed his family and Liam Neeson’s character in the underrated Seraphim Falls was seeking revenge against Pierce Bronson after soldiers under his command killed his family. Fire is a motif throughout the film showcasing the impending danger the Union represents and the discussions the women have, treating the war like it was the apocalypse – having no news about the war and it would have been interesting to see more on how the war impacted civilian life – particularly in towns that were cut off from the rest of the world.
Despite the gritty tone and the strong performances, The Keeping Room suffers from its painfully slow pacing as characters tell each other stories (true and fictional) and debating what is happening in the war. The worst example is when Louise is recovering from an infection and Augusta comforting her; the older women celebrate when she gets better. Everyone involved in the production seems to have come to the conclusion that a slow build up will have a thrilling or emotional payoff but in reality, it makes conversations and monologs drawn out. The movie also has a subplot where an African-American Union soldier seems to be investigating the marauders crimes, but it was hardly touched on in the movie and seem to be only kept in for a big emotional reveal that wasn’t justified.
The Keeping Room works with its atmosphere and the performances from its main cast, but suffers from its slow pacing, dampening the drama.
Special Features: The Keeping Room comes with a 10-minute Behind-the-Scenes featurette, featuring interviews with the main cast members and a commentary from Brit Marling and screenwriter Julia Hart.