This review was originally published during our coverage of LFF 2014.
The Keeping Room is ‘past-apocalyptic’ cinema. We like to imagine the end of the world coming with nuclear war, asteroid collision or alien invasion. Here, however, we see it as history, a terrifying world as cruel as The Road or Mad Max, where mankind can only crawl among the ashes, a world that’s already happened.
This particular apocalypse is the American Civil War, and its desperate survivors are three Southern women: sisters Augusta and Louise (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their former slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). With the sister’s parents dead, the women are left to scratch an existence in an empty, isolated farmhouse. Their world is one largely devoid of human life, as nearly every man has become gristle for the Confederate war machine and the women have fled in terror.
Under these extreme circumstances, social contracts have broken down. For one, former slave Mad is now the sister’s equal, a situation summarized by Augusta’s memorable line “we’re all n***ers now.” More worryingly, however, is that the lawless environment has created the perfect opportunity for amoral psychopaths to flourish.
The villains of the piece are two Union scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller). They’ve been sent ahead to secure supplies and shelter for General Sherman’s oncoming Union Army and have taken this as a cue to drunkenly rape and pillage their way through the countryside. With nobody to stand in their way, they’ve become demons, their Satanic nature underlined by their sole companion – a vicious black dog. And now they have their hungry eyes on these three women.
The Keeping Room is brutal and austere, sharing much in common with the nihilistic The Proposition. Setting it aside from the crowd is its determination to show how strong women (to whom Barber dedicates the film) can draw from deep reserves of courage and aggression to overcome adversity.
Crucial to creating mood is Martin Ruhe’s expertly languid, beautiful cinematography, coupled with absolutely perfect lighting. Most stunning is a moment where the three women head to bed, each holding a lantern. As they climb the stairs, the candlelight flickers through the bannisters, creating a beautiful spiderweb of shadows – an image to rival Roger Deakins at his best.
This visual panache goes a long way in helping the film achieve incredibly suspenseful heights. One of the best is a sequence where Augusta must leave the safety of the farm to fetch some medicine. Riding a white horse, she’s a lonely figure in an empty world that even the wildlife has apparently deserted. Reaching a saloon, she encounters an abused prostitute numbing her pain with alcohol and the two Union soldiers. You can almost feel the misery; peaking when the prostitute ominously offers Augusta a drink to numb the pain of “what’s to come.”
Scenes tend to terminate in extreme violence; gunshot wounds to the head, slow bleedouts and blood spattering into the dusty ground. The violence comes to a head in the home invasion sequence that anchors the film, as the three women desperately try to stop the men by any means necessary. An isolated farmhouse under assault with the inhabitants threatened by murder and rape recalls Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. It’s here that Barber cannily switches genres from Western to horror, ramping up the excitement and shredding the audience’s nerves in the process.
It’s difficult to precisely pin down what Barber is saying with this battle of the genders. On one hand, he’s careful to avoid black and white morality, even going so far as to reserve a smidge of sympathy for the psycho rapist baddies. On the other, there’s a whiff of exploitation cinema in having women achieving liberation through sexual assault. Fortunately, I think this queasy ambiguity helps rather than hinders, and it’s entirely congruent with the rest of the film.
With Barber putting this much effort in, it’d be a shame if the film were sunk by a duff performance. But everyone more than holds their own. Brit Marling (an ace writer/director in her own right) does an excellent job in showing how Augusta deals with being forced into a leadership role and having to toughen up from Southern belle into cold-blooded killer. Hailee Steinfeld is also pretty good as the wimpier younger sister, doing her best with a script that doesn’t give her room to do much other than cry. But it’s Muna Otaru (in her debut role!) that really shines; of the three she’s got by far the heaviest dramatic burden, beautifully playing the social awkwardness of addressing her former mistresses as equals, not to mention the paradox of her fighting Union soldiers that, ideologically speaking, are on her side.
The men are a bit more two dimensional, but Sam Worthington manages to squeeze as much pathos as it’s possible to squeeze from a demented murderer of women. I honestly didn’t know the previously wooden star of Avatar and Clash of the Titans had a performance like this in him, but there you go.
Perhaps the best barometer of the The Keeping Room‘s success though is the audience’s reaction. At the LFF screening I attended, the auditorium variously gasped in horror, quietly whispered advice at the screen and screamed at the scary moments. At a climactic moment, a smattering of people burst into spontaneous applause, hardened filmgoers were removed from their lofty perches by a quality piece of filmmaking.
The Keeping Room is beautiful, suspenseful and thoughtful. A true triumph!