Review: The Keeping Room

Posted in Reviews, Top Stories by - December 31, 2015
Review: The Keeping Room

There are feminist films. There are Westerns. Generally, the two don’t connect. Feminist films
are about empowerment of women, and in Westerns, women are either to be won or protected. In “The Keeping Room,” however, writer Julia Hart and director Daniel Barber bring the two together in a well-imagined and dark film about three women trying to protect themselves as the Civil War comes to their home.

The movie begins and ends with violence. The first scene is a black woman walking along until she encounters a dog. Clearly startled, she overcomes her fear and barks back at the dog. It isn’t until after, that she realizes there’s something wrong. The dog is in front of a carriage, a black man sitting in the driver’s seat, and a white woman breaks from the carriage to try to run. She cries out, and a man follows her and shoots her in the back, killing her. The man then proceeds to button up his fly, let another man kill the black woman, and, a few moments later, the viewer watches the carriage on fire, the black man now dead but still stuck in his seat, the horse panicked and trying to escape.

“The Keeping Room,” set in 1865, doesn’t shy away from violence or darkness. It skips to three women, two free white women and their black slave, who have been left while all the men went  to war. The women are having a hard time keeping it together, waiting as the war plays out in the distance, not knowing if their family is still alive. Augusta, played by Britt Marling, is the eldest, trying to care for her younger sister, Louise, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Their slave, Mad, played brilliantly by Muna Otaru, has transcended some of the typical expectations for slaves, and in one powerful scene, slaps Augusta. Louise is injured, causing Augusta to try to find medicine.

When Augusta goes to the closest farm, she discovers that one of the women living there is missing and the other is dead, having committed suicide by poison. She is forced to go further afield to a local brothel and general building that is also used for the sale and trade of slaves. It is there she encounters the soldiers from the first scene who have taken over the brothel and are terrorizing its few remaining inhabitants. Augusta catches one of the soldier’s eye, and from then on, the three women fight to avoid rape and murder at the hands of the soldiers who have come ahead as scouts for the Union Army.

The movie is dark and brooding. The women are realistic – scared of what they are being forced into, but brave enough to fight when they have no other choice. There is no cowering in the closet or running into a male savior meant to be the magic elixir for their problems. They engage in the types of fights that are normally saved for male leads.

Of course, no movie is perfect. The movie has some points to make about violence, war, and what happens to people who are forced to fight and learn to like it. The loss of humanity; the worries of losing family, self, and home; the inability to know what is the ‘right’ thing to do – these issues come to the forefront but in a very heavy-handed way, such as having Mad declare that “you just gotta go on” or one of the rogue Union soldiers proclaim that he “don’t think I know my way home from here.”

The few moments that are overdone do not take away from the movie’s otherwise exciting and spellbinding storytelling. The visuals are simple but commanding; not much is shown, but what is shown is done in extremes. The forest around them is vibrant with green life. Their keeping room is dark and has gloom in the corners, even when well-lit and meant to be a happy place. The music by Martin Phipps begins by giving the movie the feel of a Western, but by the end, the mood has changed, and the music intensifies the feelings of violence and violation.

Overall, the movie is solid and well-constructed. The plot may be simple, but it isn’t without its moments of surprise, and while the end might have been a bit more original than it turned out to be, the dramatic tension and moments of beauty and ugliness make this movie one that is worth watching and remembering.

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1 Comment on "Review: The Keeping Room"

  • Charles

    It’s interesting that you listed the race of every character that needed to be mentioned, yet you made no mention of the race of “the man” and “another man”. Would you like your readers to believe that every time you say “man” without giving descriptions it would automatically mean white? Everyone knows during the Civil War soldiers weren’t only white.

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