With a promising cast and intriguing premise, The Keeping Room starts strong and draws us into its quiet universe.
By Jessica Keller
A woman stalks through the woods, pale dress and wheat-blonde hair that belies the rifle in her arms. She wields it with a shaky sort of confidence, the kind that comes with repeated use and mixed results. This is Augusta (Brit Marling), our protagonist and the grounding core of director Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room. The film is a plodding period piece set during the final hours of the American Civil War. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld star as Augusta and Louise, two sisters forced to fend for themselves with their house slave Mad (Muna Otaru) while their father and brother fight for the Confederacy. Augusta, as the eldest sister, bears the brunt of this responsibility, combing forests to put food on the table. Meanwhile Mad tends to the house and serves as a glorified babysitter for Louise, who spends her idle time wondering about sex, refusing work, and belittling Mad.
Early in the film, Louise suffers a raccoon bite that spurs the plot into motion. As she reels from the fresh wound, Augusta blames Mad for the incident and slaps her. Mad slaps back. It’s a well-played moment that reminds the girls, and the audience, that old power structures are no longer in play. The men are gone, the farm is deserted, and the women must do all they can to save themselves and their homestead. Louise’s dangerous infection sends Augusta to a nearby bar and brothel in search of medicine. Her arrival attracts the attention of Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), two Yankee soldiers scouting ahead of the Union army. They stalk Augusta for the remainder of the film and provide the film’s primary source of tension.
With a promising cast and intriguing premise, The Keeping Room starts strong and draws us into its quiet universe. Augusta, Louise, and Mad exist in a void, their connections from the outside world severed. Their isolation serves as a mirror, forcing the girls to reexamine themselves and their values. Mud redefines her role in the home. Augusta matures into a woman. Louise wrestles with sex. The audience is lured by issues of race, gender, and budding adolescence. But we can’t quite take the bait. Barber overindulges in empty pauses, lingering on moments that just don’t communicate and leaving some of the film’s most interesting questions to rot. Its thrills, not chills, take priority in the film’s second half.
Missteps aside, The Keeping Room is a provocative look at wartime terror on the home front. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe brilliantly frames this boxing ring, a pit of simmering tension that evolves our protagonists in a violent metamorphosis.
With a perfectly icy performance from Brit Marling and one memorable ending, The Keeping Room is a must see for Florida Film Festival 2015, which starts this Friday. You can watch an exclusive clip below.
Jessica Keller is a filmmaker and photographer based in Orlando, FL. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production at the University of Central Florida. Her interest lies in capturing a genuine human element through the lens. You can reach her at email@example.com