“War is cruelty,” Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room reminds us as the Civil War-set film begins to unspool, thanks to a pre-credits coda that shares one of Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman’s most memorable quotes about war in general and the American Civil War specifically. (Sherman is also credited for such bangers as “war is a terrible thing!” and “if they want eternal war, well and good” and yes, even the inimitable “war is hell” – for a lauded general, Sherman sure hated war a lot.) War is indeed cruelty, and although Barber drives that point home (again and again), The Keeping Room does it with grace, care, and an appealing spirit that places it a cut above other war-set films that don’t involve a battle field-set rager.
Penned by Julia Hart (the film is the screenwriter’s first feature, and what a fine start it is), The Keeping Room chronicles what happens to people during war – specifically, female people – when their lives are irrevocably changed even if they don’t actually go into battle. They’re still at war, even if they’re not expected to literally fight alongside their countrymates. It’s just a different kind of war. Left alone on their farm (the film only specifies that it’s set somewhere in “the American South”), sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) are forced to fend for themselves alongside their single slave Mad (Muna Otaru). Survival isn’t easy, and the women spend the majority of their time hunting and gathering food, sitting morosely, and trying to keep a creeping fear at bay. They’re right to be afraid.
The dynamics between the women are fraught — while Augusta has abandoned any notion of status, race inequality, or gender disparity, admirably bearing down getting done what needs to be done, regardless of it being traditionally viewed as “slave’s work” or “man’s work,” the shiftless Louise is unable and unwilling to accept her fate. Nothing is off-limits now, and the younger of the two sisters does herself a disservice by believing that she can uphold the status quo. Mad and Augusta work alongside each other, but the bratty Louise often refuses to contribute, even when it’s absolutely necessary. The film’s first act is mostly quiet, mediative, and slow-moving until a relatively benign occurrence throws everything into disarray.
The Keeping Room is set in the waning days of the war (the film’s opening credits indicate it’s 1865, and temperate weather make it clear that it’s spring- or summer-set – the final shot of the war was fired on June 22, 1865), but the girls don’t know that. They just know that their father and brother (and, in Mad’s case, her owners, who she seems to have a hearty affection for) are gone and it’s up to them to keep themselves afloat. Their house is threadbare and the food is terrible and there’s never anyone else around (and, yes, everything looks historically accurate and not overly cinematic in any way). They’re trapped. The film has an unshakeable apocalyptic feel – at one point, the ladies actually muse that it’s the end of the world and they’re the only people left – including the introduction of a pair of villains who could quite easily haunt their own end-of-the-world feature.
The ladies might not know that the war is nearly over, but Union scouts Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) do. After all, that’s why they’re in the South, marauding around country homes and far-flung general stores, feeling out what the next steps will be and utterly terrorizing everyone they meet. Moses and Henry are bad guys – we meet them in the film’s first frames, just as they’re raping and pillaging their way through the territory – and it’s only a matter of time before they come up against Augusta and her family.
The Union may be the heroes of the war, at least in generally-accepted retrospect, but Moses and Henry are monsters, and the majority of the film’s latter half tension is built on some extremely queasy and uncomfortable fears: that they will capture the ladies, that they will rape them, that they will keep them. Barber and Hart approach their material with an unsentimental eye, and despite a plot that sounds as if it could very easily be totally exploitative and just plain gross, the film itself is unnerving and clear-eyed. Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru are bold and fearless in their work, and Worthington is utterly terrifying as their primary antagonist.
War is cruelty and it’s Hell and it’s terrible and it often feels eternal, but it breeds great heroes and wild stories, just like the ones within The Keeping Room, the kind you want to fight for.
The Upside: Marling and Worthington’s stellar performances, strong supporting turns from Steinfeld and Otaru, gritty and atmospheric, the historical elements are lovingly and meticulously rendered, a deeply felt and very satisfying feminist tone
The Downside: The meditative tone wears a bit in the first act, adheres to a few predictable tropes (weirdly, most of them from the horror genre)
Kate’s review of The Keeping Room originally ran during last year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it as the film plays at Fantastic Fest and opens in limited release.
Related Topics: Fantastic Fest