A fragment in the long line of features attached to Hollywood’s revered Blacklist – an annual survey of the most liked but unmade screenplays – The Keeping Room has taken its time making it to these shores, fitting dutifully in a series of fellow westerns released this year and sitting nicely alongside Natalie Portman’s action-drama Jane’s Got a Gun and one of 2016’s best so far, Hell or High Water.
Amidst recent features of this genre, The Keeping Room remains quaint, surreally accurate and palpable in both tension and its surroundings, just as envisioned by director Daniel Barber, writer Julia Hart and cinematographer Martin Ruhe.
Set in the rural south of 1865, the Civil War is in its final haul. Men are dying in the battlefields as the women are left at home to cope. Three women, sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their slave, Mad (Muna Otaru), are left alone to defend themselves in the vast and unforgiving terrain. Physically clambering to survive, the three actively seek solace while waiting for salvation unlikely to arrive.
Two ex-soldiers whose paths have strayed into violence prey upon townspeople, raping and pillaging their way through homes, bars and women. They attempt to break into the three womens’ home, intending to leave as much bloodshed as humanly possible. Luckily, these women have learned a certain amount of pizzazz in the time spent fending for themselves.
The film is impressively realised by its cinematographer, Ruhe, who expertly creates a world that is both dense and bleak. Sparsely populated with few characters, the story calls for events to be depicted accurately and with directorial conviction, focusing on the pain and the heartache of these characters as they attempt to survive in and succumb to the world around them. Harsh terrain appears to merely brush the floundering and decrease in lifestyle for the three women, who forge strong bonds while defeating boundaries that usually exist because of race and gender. Hart’s screenplay packs a visceral punch and possesses a vital powerhouse undertone, bringing together a strong cast of female characters who are pitted against everything and anything.
The action is muted and interspersed sparingly throughout the film, serving to maximise the dramatic impact of the more shocking scenes. The film opens unsettlingly and disturbingly, as Worthington’s and Soller’s characters, playing essentially the film’s only two male leads, murder two women, set a horse and cart alight and carry on wandering the streets. It is immediately apparent to the viewer that these characters are uncompromising, cruel and unforgiving by nature and the scene instils a genuine feeling of unease which is successfully maintained throughout the film.
However, The Keeping Room‘s main strength is undoubtedly its three gleaming female leads. Playing elder sister Augusta, this is Marling’s most impressive role to date. Her debut coming in indie drama Another Earth, she’s remarkably mature and impressively focused for an actress with few recognisable roles to date. Steinfeld plays younger sister Louise, whose teenage years are blown away into the dusty crops as she is hurtled prematurely into the cruel and dangerous world of adulthood. Otaru gives a blistering performance as slave Mad, whose occupation becomes increasingly less distinct as the film progresses and the three become equals. “We all niggas now,” exclaims Augusta defiantly during one of the film’s many character monologues. These three women grow into highly capable fighting machines and the talents on display by the actresses ensure these dramatic moments are as heart-wrenching and authentically stirring as they can possibly be.
The Keeping Room grows from southern drama to a slight home invasion. It’s brimming with talent throughout – in its performances and in its direction – resulting in a highly entertaining film which successfully conveys the depressing and bleak potential of human experience.
Dir: Daniel Barber
Scr: Julia Hart
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington
Prd: Jordan Horowitz, David McFadzean, Dete Meserve, Patrick Newall
Music: Mearl Martin Phipps
DOP: Martin Ruhe
Runtime: 95 minutes
The Keeping Room is out on DVD on the 17th October.