Director: Daniel Barber
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Brit Marling, Sam Worthington, Amy Nuttall, Muna Otaru
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“What if all the men killed all the other men?” muses Augusta (Brit Marling) in The Keeping Room. It’s the kind of thing you could expect any woman to rationally dream of in 2017, but in 1865 America, it’s a prospect that feels eerily plausible. The movie drops us into the South in the aftermath of the Civil War, where Union troops are now moving across the land to victory. A sense of change is in the air, but some things don’t change. We join the action as two rogue northern soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) kill two women and torch a carriage, seemingly for the hell of it; even though the Union fighters have triumphed over the Confederates, men in a position of success isn’t always a good thing.
We then move to a home in the wilderness, where three women are attempting to get by: Augusta, her sister, Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). Short on supplies needed for Louise, Augusta heads into town for medicine, only to be followed back to their farm by the two men – and the ensuing 80 minutes is a slow, ominous countdown to the male invasion of their property, in all senses of the word.
Daniel Barber fosters that dreaded suspense throughout, slowing things down to reinforce the apocalyptic atmosphere created by DoP Martin Ruhe’s muted visuals and the sparse soundtrack of their isolated location. When the confrontations do come, they erupt in bursts of violence reminiscent of Tarantino; like Barber’s previous film, Harry Brown, there’s an element of scuzzy exploitation in this thriller, which here manifests itself in the overly familiar threat of sexual abuse as a plot point and driver of tension. (Think period Straw Dogs and you have a sense of what to expect.)
The cast are excellent, with Marling’s stoic central performance anchoring the gripping drama, balanced out by the more emotional presence of Hailee Steinfield’s Louise. Outshining them both, though, is Muna Otaru’s Mad, who finds herself in an unfamiliar limbo: a slave of the family, but without the family or wider society to reinforce it, she’s tied to the other members of the household through the simple fact of their survival. “We’re all niggers now,” Augusta tells Louise in one heated exchange – one of the few disappointments in the film is that Mad doesn’t get a chance to lead the narrative.
Julia Hart’s screenplay subtly juggles such provocative issues while still presenting us with a compelling piece of genre cinema. A timely, revisionist take on the Western, The Keeping Room sits on a frontier between new and old America, between male power and female resilience, and lets those themes simmer underneath its home invasion framework. The moments of violence perhaps fall into convention come the final act, while the strong ending almost makes you wish the film started there, but it’s the moments of quiet and stillness along the way that make this feminist Western a refreshing change to the norm, as we see three women increasingly unite and strengthen their resolve.
The Keeping Room is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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