The movie industry churns out a lot of content. A fraction of it is excellent, some of it is good, and a lot of it is – let’s be honest – mediocre, at best. So, when a movie comes along that seems to transcend that ‘industry’ sheen – demonstrating the pure artistry that goes into the crafting of a piece of cinema – it immediately becomes a must-see. Such is the case with The Keeping Room – a Civil War-era horror-thriller that stars Brit Marling, Muna Otaru, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller.
Academy Award nominee Daniel Barber is at the helm of this stark and brutal tale, delivering a beautifully realized visualization of the 2012 Black List script that was written by Julia Hart. As her debut feature length screenplay, The Keeping Room is a remarkable achievement in the nuanced telling of a story from a female perspective – an achievement that is testament to the intimidating talent of the writer. The film employs elements of western, horror, and thriller to create a home-invasion nightmare that is steeped in history, but universal in theme.
The plot sounds very simple, when described. Three women reside alone on a family farm at the end of the Civil War – the men in the family having long since left for the front lines. Augusta (Marling) is older sister to Louise (Steinfeld), while Mad (Otaru) is their former slave, who has essentially become a family member as the three work together to survive.
When Louise is taken ill, Augusta must venture outside the farm in search of medicinal supplies. In doing so, she has the misfortune of crossing paths with Moses (Worthington) and Henry (Soller) – drunken soldiers that have broken away from their unit to wreak havoc across the countryside. This encounter sets a truly horrifying tale in motion.
Talking to screenwriter Julia Hart is an inspiring activity. She is as passionate, focused and clear as the script that she penned – and exudes a deep love of real cinema and great storytelling. From that love comes the desire to challenge, which becomes the greatest of The Keeping Room’s numerous successes – challenging conventions, assumptions and attitudes with every frame. That being the intention, the Civil War setting is a fascinating choice, precisely because this tale would achieve the same in any time frame or location.
“I’m glad that you felt that, because that was certainly my purpose. I liked the idea of grounding it in a real time and space, because that seems so much more interesting to me. I wanted the film to have kind of an allegorical feel to it – like a universal feel – which is what you’re touching on. At the same time, I also wanted to ground those themes in a specific time and place, because it grounds them in a way that, in arbitrary apocalyptic landscapes, those ideas end up getting lost – because there is no physical space and time, or world that they’re existing in.
“Also, I think there was enough documentation about soldiers breaking off from Sherman’s March, and engaging in the activities that you see the guys engage in, in the film, and there was documentation of what happened in terms of race, and gender, and societal structure. All of those historical ideas that happened in an actual time and space were lining up with what I wanted to say universally. It seemed like the perfect fit.”