The Keeping Room was directed by Daniel Barber (Harry Brown), written by Julia Hart (Fast Color, Stargirl) and stars Brit Marling (The OA, Another Earth), Muna Otaru (Broken, Surge), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Bumblebee), Sam Worthington (The Hunter’s Prayer, Lansky) and Kyle Soller (The Titan, Marrowbone). It’s about three young women fighting off two unhinged men in the twilight of the American Civil War.
The Plot: Barber made The Keeping Room with a lot to say about the who, when, and why, but less about the what. While this home invasion/siege movie has a sparse plot and sparser pacing, it’s one that needed a lot more events than it ended up with.
It’s 1865 in the American south with the war coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean anything to Moses (Worthington) and Henry (Soller), who are meandering down as far as they can with only carnal pleasures in mind. On their warpath are sisters Augusta (Marling) and Louise (Steinfeld) and their slave, Mad (Otaru). It does take a long time for any one of either party to come across each other, perhaps too long. While The Keeping Room didn’t outrightly require more to its plot, it would’ve been a far better choice.
Once Augusta goes on a medicine run, she finds Moses and Henry, a pair not intending to let a woman with her looks go, and flees back to her house. While it takes nearly half the movie to initiate conflict between both parties, there’s world-building to compensate for it, but it can’t carry all the weight. Eventually, the five people have nothing to do but wait each other out with periodic bursts of violence to shake each other awake until either the men or the women decide to go for broke.
It’s a threadbare plot to be sure, but one with the potential to be a vessel for thrills and characters that works thanks to the fact that none of it *needed* to happen, but as an examination of the decay that enveloped the US during this time, it’s a good idea that flails around without attention to other aspects and a lack of uniquity aside from its setting.
The Characters: When a movie chooses to use less dialogue and more of the individual behaviours and the environment to sketch its characters, it’d better well have a top-tier illustration of behaviour patterns and the environment.
The sisters lost their parents a long time ago and with the war going on, don’t have husbands to lean on either. Augusta laments the latter more than the former, hoping to know what it’s like to be a wife before every last man on the planet kills each other. She’s taken on both parental roles in the meantime, a maternal one guiding Louise through sickness and a paternal one in doing hard labour, practicing with guns, and hunting for food. Nothing about it fits her fancy but she’s come into the role nonetheless, trying to be as much as she can be during trying times.
Hart doesn’t dare to do much differently with Mad than other filmmakers have in the past. She’s been put through the wringer as a slave, doing gardening duty, cooking, cleaning and plenty more on a handful of different farms under different owners. Under the sisters that own her now, she still does a lot of that but isn’t subjected to inhumane acts like she was before, becoming a part of the makeshift family of females left to do what they shouldn’t have to.
Louise is left with little. She was clearly expecting to have a pampered life associated with the (white) women of the era and isn’t too happy when she has to share in the work. Hart doesn’t offer significant development from there but she’s surely representative of a lot of young girls of the time.
Moses and Henry are dangerously close to public school simplifications of the men of the time but Hart does eventually add grey to the black and white that almost made them up, despite The Keeping Room’s highly revisionist nature. The way they drift from one place to the next looking for women and whiskey the movie lets the audience know that they’ve seen more than they wanted and only want to forget the horrors seen on both sides (Moses is a confederate soldier and Henry is a union one). They come off as a little one-note despite this since they don’t do anything aside from that, but they are intimidating.
Some of the characters on offer here are very well done but without as much dialogue as it should have, The Keeping Room fails to give one of the three women and arguably both men enough detailing to flourish.
The Thrills: It takes an inordinately long time for The Keeping Room to become the thriller it planned to be. Around 45 minutes of a 90-minute movie is spent in stasis, providing one decent jump during that time which doesn’t mean much by the end. For some, this may be too long to take before something really happens, and it only gets better for short stretches.
Watching the rogue soldiers and their dog draw near to their target is a good start, and once that dog is a victim of one of the women The Keeping Room allows itself to get going. The siege itself is well handled as the men pepper the walls with bullets (lead balls if we’re being pedantic) and almost start the place on fire. This could’ve been the majority of the movie and, if handled as well as these first sequences, would’ve been better. One of the men is able to carry himself but the other is far too drunk to be effective and takes some of the suspense out of the situation with his predictable fate.
Hart stops The Keeping Room in its tracks at one point, blocking the flow for the sake of spelling out themes. Not many thrills are present after this point and the movie knows it and offers a compelling final confrontation as compensation. Having a home invasion thriller set in the American Civil War is a good idea and leaves room to examine the period but it seems as though The Keeping Room’s creators were more focused on the examination and less on the movie.
The Technics: Barber directs with an assuredness, creating a quiet movie with plenty of atmospheres to spare. Barber’s direction of the said script is still definitely assured, but perhaps wrongly so since problems pock the script and pacing by extension. The upside of this is that The Keeping Room’s spurts of violence are made more impactful thanks to strong sound design which makes each of the few rounds fired resonate more than usual.
Cinematography and editing are equally well done and eventually are able to immerse one into this time since passed. No one should deny this quality of the construction on-hand in The Keeping Room.
Hart had a script with a lot of familiar tropes and criminally few thrills in what’s designed to be a thriller. Some good character work is done with two of the leading women and the few up-tempo moments are decent, as are the technical elements, but too little happens to justify the feature-length of The Keeping Room.
The Keeping Room was released by Drafthouse Films and is available on their Drafthouse on Demand service and other Digital platforms.