Film Review – The Keeping Room
The Keeping Room
There are a lot of interesting ideas running through The Keeping Room (2014), although I’m not so sure it fleshes any of them out thoroughly. Directed by Daniel Barber and written by Julia Hart, this is a reexamination of the classic western motif. Themes such as race, the Civil War, and gender roles all play a part. But despite the consistent direction and well delivered performances, they all make way for what the real intention is: to make a brutal and lurid home invasion story undermining the deeper discussion there was to have. Instead of exploring the feminist points of view, we get a down and dirty exploitation film masked under artistic tapestries.
Perhaps a grimier approach was needed. Barber and Hart lay a tone that has plenty of melancholy, where characters sit back and reflect upon their lives – of happier times, and the hope of happy times soon returning. Shots of far off horizons during the “golden hour” of the day hint toward a kind of poetic realism. Those scenes leave little resonance, as the violence of outside forces make its way to the forefront. It’s as though the narrative wants to pull us in two directions, where weighty dialogue clash against unrelenting violence. Are the two sides meant to conflict? Are the thriller aspects of the second half supposed to amplify the foundation set in the first? Some may see the premise and be reminded of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (both 1971). I don’t know if this explores similar territory as effectively.
One issue is how uninteresting many (if not all) of the characters are. Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) are sisters living in the South at the tail end of the Civil War. Their brother and father went to fight for the Confederacy leaving them and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru) to fend for themselves. Except for one or two instances, the facets of all three are streamlined. Augusta is the matriarch of the group, and Brit Marling’s performance is the central highlight. She plays Augusta with exhaustion but unflinching determination to see them all survive. Marling delivers strength and weakness with believability. Mad toes the line of the “happy slave” trope, which makes me wonder what liberties were taken with historical accuracy for dramatic tension. When Mad makes a bold decision against the wishes of Augusta, instead of being punished for it (which most likely would have happened in reality) it’s simply forgotten about for the sake of building the group’s camaraderie.
Louise unfortunately is the weakest of the three. She’s stubborn, foolish, and expresses her racism far more than Augusta. Louise cannot see the bigger picture of their situation, and Augusta does little to help her understand. Her character is a weight pulling down the other two, and the writing doesn’t develop her enough to garner our empathy. Steinfeld does what she can with the material, but she’s often asked to be simply bratty or overly frightened. It’s her reckless behavior that puts to motion the second half, where an injury to her leg causes Augusta to go to in search of medicine.
It’s at this point where we meet the two worst characters here: Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller). Moses and Henry are two rogue Union soldiers whose only purpose are to be the villains. This is a fascinating reversal, where during the Civil War we have southerners as the protagonists and the northerners filling in as the antagonists. But Moses and Henry are severely underwritten. They act as evil incarnate – racist killers who will put a bullet into anyone that looks at them differently. There’s slight talk of being influenced by their time in the war, but not nearly enough to make them multi-dimensional. When they encounter Augusta while she’s looking for medicine for Louise, Moses and Henry narrow their focus to find the girls’ homestead and take it over. They’re the worst characters in this story, and not because they are meant to be. It pulls the carpet from under the feminist approach Hart and Barber try to make. Where we’re supposed to see this as women surviving in a world dominated by men, Moses and Henry are drawn so thinly that they add no substance to that message.
The confrontation between the men and women at the homestead was suspenseful, but it didn’t have the same kind of tone that occupied everything that happened before. Poetic realism is replaced by gritty bloodshed; it was like watching a different picture. Barber and Hart go to extreme measures to play on the desperation between the groups that a particular violent act seemed put in just for the shock value. And when all was said and done, I came away without any feeling of pathos or catharsis, but a deep sadness and emptiness over what I just watched.
The Keeping Room is competently made and has a distinct visual style that runs from beginning to end, but it’s all aesthetics with little to show underneath. The ideas of female empowerment or racial tensions leave much to be desired. When the credits rolled, I thought this was less a thought provoking exercise and more a missed opportunity.