The Keeping Room (2014) / Thriller-Western
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence including a sexual assault
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller
Director: Daniel Barber
Screenplay: Julia Hart
Review published December 7, 2015
Set in South Carolina toward the waning days of the American Civil War, it's a time of lawlessness and savage atrocities, as the Union has all but completely won the war against their Confederate adversaries. Augusta (Marling, I Origins) is a Southern woman living in her expansive plantation estate with her younger sister Louise (Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 2) and slave Mad (Otaru), all of whom have to tend to the needs of the farm while the men of the town are away fighting or dead. A mishap forces Augusta to go into town to procure medicine, where her beauty draws the eye of a couple of psychopathic Union Army scouts ahead of Sherman's Carolinas Campaign who have taken advantage of the lack of protection in the land by taking what they want without concern, when they want, whether that means booze at the local saloon, or any defenseless women they encounter. If anyone fusses, they're killed, along with any witnesses, without a concern for the morality of it. Augusta manages to make it home, but the men have followed, and with no one around to come to their defense, the women are going to have to figure out a way to fend these embattled soldiers off in order to avoid a nightmarish end to their lives.
It's a bit of a bitter pill to try to swallow, as most audiences will not be keen on a story about how women who've been left to fend for themselves when the men have gone off to fight in the war become easy prey for being raped and murdered by soldiers who know there will be no retribution for their actions, like The Purge but without the government sanction. The cast is quite solid, as are the performances, and with a very interesting script by first-timer Julia Hart, the table is certainly served to making The Keeping Room one of the better Westerns in recent years. It's still a worthwhile watch, but there's just something lackadaisical about Daniel Barber's (Harry Brown) directorial choices that keeps the film feeling slack and uneven, especially in the moments that are built to be thrilling. Even at a relatively short 95 minutes, the story could benefit from a few more narrative developments, and perhaps a shoring up of the thematic material.
Though the film is set during the American Civil War, this is a film that could have been set just about any war torn land in any era. There is some commentary about slavery, but it's not embedded in the plot enough that it couldn't be rewritten to conform to the time and place at hand, if not written out altogether. The basic structure of the movie is akin to a home invasion flick, a bit like another film about a room, Panic Room, but set two centuries prior. Some may be also be reminded of Cold Mountain, but one in which the women must fend for themselves -- there's no man coming back to save them, a la Odysseus, when the war is over. It's a slow film to develop, but never uninteresting (notions that the Union soldiers could be barbaric and families of Confederate soldiers could be kind are not often expressed in film), with good performances all around, though the problems with pacing and the sparse nature of the story elements keeps this from being one to go out of your way to see for those who aren't just interested in it as a 'feminist Western'.
©2015 Vince Leo