IFFBoston 2015 Review: ‘The Keeping Room’
Independent Film Festival Boston 2015
Directed by: Daniel Barber
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Stenfeild, and Muna Otaru
Plot: 3 women must protect their home from 2 rogue soldiers during the last days of the American Civil War.
The Keeping Room takes place in the final days of the American Civil War with the encroaching Yankee army getting close to an isolated South Carolina farmhouse. The framhouse is being watched over by two young sisters, Augusta and Louise (played by Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld respectively) and their family slave, Mad (Muna Otaru).
It paints a particularly bleak picture of the Civil War. Augusta has come of a certain age where she should be getting married and starting a family. Instead she is stuck trying to keep the house and the garden going. Without a male presence around the house for such a long time, she starts getting concerned that she may never see one again. Her house is so isolated, the nearest neighbor is a half a day away by horse. She questions if this is the end of the world, and the movie makes us feel like it could be.
The dread is exponentially made more dreadful by Marling’s gravitas in the role. She is so self-awarely steadfast holding back floods of emotions throughout the whole movie trying to be the adult to her kid sister and their slave, who is more family than servant at this point. In one scene, Augusta and Mad chit-chat over some liquor, a rare moment of levity in this movie that makes both Mad and Augusta immediately likable.
Their world is rocked when two Yankees from the Union army make their way onto their land. They are meant to be scouting ahead but have been attacking random people aloing the way. They open the movie having just raped a woman and killed her travelling partners before setting fire to their wagon and moving on. A frightful image if there ever was one. One of these men is played by Sam Worthington, who was once being groomed as the next big thing when he was first being introduced to American audiences. He has kind of floundered as a performer but does great work here. He is never obtusely vile or demonic, which seems to make him all the more scary. He makes forcing himself into their home violently with every intention of sexually attacking them feel too casual. He eventually repeats the quote that opens the movie, “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
With the entrance of the two men, the movie takes on a more pulse-pounding tone relegating the earlier character exploration to simple window dressing to get us invested in their well-being. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of the interesting character work they set the foundation for wasn’t followed up on. Mad’s near equal status in the house goes unexplored as does Augusta’s delayed sexual awakening and curiosity despite the lack of a man in her life. It then ended with a strange thought and action that I didn’t quite understand. Thankfully, this doesn’t stop it from being an effective thriller and western.