Release: 17th October 2016
Format: DVD / DGTL
Left without men in the dying days of the American Civil War, three women must fight to defend their home and themselves from two rogue soldiers who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army.
There is a fast developing formula that Brit Marling is the betterment of any project she touches, regardless of its scale or quality; she truly is a darling of independent cinema. This remains true for The Keeping Room as she proves to be the heart, soul and kitchen sink of this uneven Western. It is a film far from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but it has all three.
First the good. The Keeping Room fights tooth and nail against convention (in spite of succumbing a number of times). Exposition is avoided (with little to the contrary), common themes of revenge and greed are side-lined in favour of reactionary survival, it has a fable-like quality, and the plot moves at its own pace. It even dares to portray a Confederate perspective on America’s past; where Union soldiers are the bad guys, and racial inequality carries minimal indignity. But that is all by-the-by as a side line in the tale of three women struggling to make sense of an uncertain future. There are times when The Keeping Room feels dystopian; an alternate history of the West where the populous are all but extinct. There is a wonderful moment of quiet as two characters reflect on the changes ahead, remarking that the sky appears to be on fire. It is a reminder that the apocalypse can come in many forms, and for women of the South in the last days of the Civil War, that end must have been very intimidating indeed.
Now the bad. In spite of its designs of being a home invasion movie, The Keeping Room fails to build much of a threat in terms of vulnerability. Yes, the film’s villains are introduced in mucho evil fashion, but then they seem to tread water, killing off-screen and exchanging glances. Our heroines, Augusta and Mad are portrayed as strong and skilled homesteaders long before Moses and Henry arrive at their door; and even then, the pair are outnumbered by their female targets. The two men carry little surprise, no mystery and are on the back foot as Augusta has the physical high ground. Director Daniel Barber made the anti-invasion movie with Harry Brown, and has gone 180 with The Keeping Room. But there is little attention given to tone or menace, and much like Michael Caine in the aforementioned British thriller, our protagonists here seem more than capable of dealing with the task at hand. Sam Peckinpah and Straw Dogs were cited as influences, but that focused on the vulnerability of Dustin Hoffman’s David Summer. The Keeping Room treats its advertised premise as a thorn to be avoided and removed as quickly as possible.
And the ugly. When something horrific happens in your film, the worst thing you can do is boil it down to, “well at least it wasn’t that bad.” The Keeping Room takes one of humankind’s ugliest crimes and uses it as a plot device. In a world where society is fighting to diminish lacklustre attitudes towards crimes against woman, for The Keeping Room to treat such acts as a brief throwaway moment is an ill-advised choice indeed. But it does lead to Muna Otaru’s breakout monologue, so it isn’t all bad.
The Keeping Room has some nice cinematography and wonderfully restrained central performances from Marling and Otaru. It wonders into needlessly familiar territory near the end, and loses sights of itself in the process. But when Julia Hart’s screenplay sucker punches you and leaves its final philosophy hanging heavy in the last frame, there is plenty to be grateful for in a rueful companion piece to the Matthew McConaughey star vehicle, Free State of Jones.
Film Grade: C-
With a lean and reasonably informative Making Of, making up the main special feature, you will be thankful for a much more engaging Commentary track.
Special Features Grade: C
There is a wasted opportunity in The Keeping Room. Its premise promises much more than it delivers, and that makes for an overall disappointing experience.