In Gone With the Wind, there’s a scene that feels like it came from a completely different movie. Scarlett and what remains of her family hole up in their home of Tara; they are afraid of the arrival of a Union solider, unaware of his intentions. Even though it only lasts a few minutes, the threat to Scarlett and Tara is tense and almost reminiscent of early horror films. The Keeping Room, the latest film from Harry Brown director Daniel Barber, lives in a dark world where the young able men are off to fight the Civil War, leaving the rest of the world behind and in shambles, scared of what’s to come.
Set in the vague “American South” at the tail end of the Civil War, sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) are left to tend their family farm along with their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), while their father and brother are gone to war, likely dead. Augusta treats Mad like an equal, since they’re all in the same boat now, yet Louise still has a hard time adjusting to this new development.
With General Sherman’s march headed their way, two Yankee soldiers Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) scout the way ahead, raping and killing along the way and burning the evidence. When Louise is bit by a raccoon, Augusta has to go into town – filled with nothing but abandoned women and men too old for war – to grab medicine and runs into these violent soldiers. After their first encounter, the two soldiers head for the farm to finish what they didn’t get a chance to start.
The Keeping Room excels when the soldiers arrive at the farm, turning the film into a strong female version of Straw Dogs or even reminiscent of this year’s Slow West. These three are clearly scared, but fight to survive in a world that has turned its back on them, leaving them to their own devices.
The dynamics between these three are equally as exciting in the film’s first half, as their dynamic fleshes itself out more. Augusta has become the alpha, carrying her shotgun around just in case. Mad still seems stuck in her position as slave to these sisters, even though she can now talk to them as equals and sit at their same table. Louise still has a hard time moving past the comforts of the life she once had, scared of the present. Otaru is the stand out here, giving a convincing portrayal of Mad, even when the dialogue fails her. Steinfeld is given the greatest arc, yet only becomes more than a brat when the film gets increasingly violent. While Marling does present Augusta as a powerful and brave character, her accent can sometimes fall into a Forrest Gump-y dialect.
The Keeping Room for the most part is able to convey the terror that these women clearly feel and even is able to bring some humanity to the villainous Union soldiers near the film’s end, but often the dialogue is far too on the nose. At one point, Julia Hart’s screenplay has Augusta matter-of-factly state the main theme of the film, asking if things would be different if they were men instead of women. Sometimes this contemplation works, as if the women wonder if maybe all men will become extinct due to war, but often it feels completely out of place. After the Union soldiers attack the farm, Mad gives a emotional speech that Otaru makes work, even though the monologue makes little sense coming from this her, except only as a way to once again bluntly point out the film’s main ideas.
Barber is able to create a dark world in the South that is haunted by the ghosts of those who left. These women are exhausted and the entire area seems to have accepted war as inevitably the way the world works now. This world is filled with monsters that must constantly be fought off in order to survive, which leads to a dread that seeps throughout the film.
Unfortunately, The Keeping Room concludes as the film teases that the far more interesting story is yet to come, almost as if the entire film had been the first act to the eventual real story. It ends when the real plot seems to be starting, yet The Keeping Room is a dark, often exciting revisionist Western that only occasionally falters.