The Keeping Room

Year: 2015
Production Co: Gilbert Films
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Julia Hart
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller

Some time in the closing days of the Civil War, three women live somewhere in the antebellum South, sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and the slave who lives with them, Mad (Muna Otaru).

The girls' father and brother have gone off to fight and they've been left alone to fend for themselves and try to scrape a living off the land as best they can, the relationship between the girls and the slave more like one of sisterhood and friendship with little of the depictions of cruelty we're used to and only a hint of the God-given racism Southern slave owners felt entitled to.

They have to pull together in particular because there are threats everywhere for women in such a time, few more so than advancing Union soldiers. Two in particular, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) have broken away from their platoons and are enjoying life in a land without law or consequence as we see in the first scene of the movie where they indiscriminately kill two women – one they've apparently been keeping to rape at will, another a slave who just happens to meet them on the road.

When Louise suffers a raccoon bite and Augusta hurries to the general store for medicine, the two boys take a shine to her, the threat in the air as she tries in vain to get supplies that have long since dried up hanging in the air like a cloud.

Augusta takes off back towards home, thinking the soldiers have let her go, but they pick up her trail, intending to capture her as a new plaything, with no idea that paydirt awaits them in three potential victims.

When Moses and Henry arrive at the house the women wage a battle to save their home and each other that's tense and protracted, taking up far more time than any action movie style would normally dictate. It's actually much more in tone with the rest of the film, which is very slow moving and pretty dour.

It seems a very authentic depiction of the 19th century in America's heartland – colourless, dusty and unforgiving for the weak – and there seems to be a strong message implicit in the theme that the women of the story are the weak ones just waiting to be preyed upon with no men around to protect them from the monsters lurking outside.

But the way Augusta rallies the other girls and prepares to shore up their defences makes it seem like something of a feminist tale, and that seems like the kind of movie Brit Marling's known for – she usually plays intelligent, well-spoken characters in serious, adult dramas where she doesn't have to impress by taking her clothes off.

So it's a bit of a left turn when the attack you've been fearing actually happens, seemingly only as a way of shocking you into believing the danger really exists – especially when the one who suffers it seems to get past it disturbingly quickly.

The Keeping Room might have been improved by having more of an action movie aesthetic and a bit more pace. It seems like the sort of script Quentin Tarantino would briefly consider before a director used to romantic melodrama decided to make it. The performances are good all round (except for Sam Worthington – when will the world learn he has absolutely no range?), but it all drags a little too much like the long days of back braking work it depicts.

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