keeping_room_2Year: 2014 (2015 release)
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer(s): Julia Hart
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 95 mins

Synopsis: In the dying days of the American Civil War, three Southern women – two sisters and one African-American slave – must fight to defend their home from rogue Union Army soldiers. (Source)

It’s about time we got a western or war film from a woman’s perspective, and that’s exactly what makes The Keeping Room so special. Stemming from a male-dominated genre, seeing this type of story from a near untold point-of-view pays off in spades, not only highlighting what it must’ve been like for its heroines to live through such a turbulent time, but also bringing into focus modern day parallels too important to ignore. The taut pace will keep you on your toes as a layered story speaks volumes through restraint, never holding back lyrically to explore gender roles and a smart inversion of the archetypal status quo. Poignantly scripted by Julia Hart and directed with urgency by Daniel Barber, this bleak, unforgiving journey into our dark past is also a cautionary tale about our future, and a gripping revisionist thriller to boot.

Left to fend for themselves, three women, Augusta (Brit Marling), her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru) farm and tend to their home as the late Civil War rages on in the distance. Together, the trio have a routine and have set up functioning family unit by necessity, even if their relationships are strained by circumstance. After a freak accident, Augusta is forced to ride into town to get medicine for her sister. This attracts the attention of two drunken Union Army soldiers who are more-or-less pillaging their way through the land. The savage Yankees track the women back to their home and a poignant, brutal conflict for survival ensues.

Transforming from a piercing, socially charged drama into a siege thriller, the story ensures a challenging, multi-faceted experience. In and of itself, the minimalist premise offers a powerful statement, one that dissects the relegation of an entire gender, while also still managing to comment on racial themes and the ugly reality in which these women are forced to deal with. It’s here where the film shines, with its remarkable contrast of impending outside threat and intimate personal war. From the ferocious opening, in which the story’s antagonists set fire to a carriage and kill three people for kicks, to the damning ending which sets our heroines against the inevitable tide of historical fate, the metaphorical story is breathtaking and taut, always operating deeper than just surface level paranoia.

keeping_room_3Obviously the film wouldn’t be anywhere without the humanity found from it’s three leads. As the defacto matriarch of the group, Brit Marling lends her sensitivity to Augusta. She’s kind and caring, but also not naive or aloof. There’s a lot brewing between the lines of her performance, allowing for her character’s unsaid journey to unfold without words, adding a depth to everything that’s happening. The totally underrated Hailee Steinfeld is a welcome addition to the cast, even if her character is mostly a supporting one – it’s just nice to see her get something weighty again. Breakout performer Muna Otaru gets some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments and she brings it. Even though Augusta stays front and center, Otaru’s performance makes most of the film’s late developments wrenching and resonant.

Taken at face value, The Keeping Room is a stunning period drama that slowly turns into a tense, layered battle for survival. On the level in which the film transcends it’s runtime, it’s a powerful tribute to the power and strength of women, their complex roll in society and proof that there aren’t enough of these stories being told. This film is a huge step in the right direction, a primal tale rooted deeper than just empty gunfire – it’s thrilling, well crafted and more important now than ever.

SG