TIFF 2014: The Keeping Room
War is cruel. The depth of its cruelty is hard to fathom, especially since it is often the innocent who suffer the most. While most films about the American Civil War have focused on its impact from a male point of view, Daniel Barber’s latest film takes a distinctly feminist perspective. His film paints a portrait of a side of American life not highlighted in the history books.
The Keeping Room looks at the impact that the Civil War had on a generation of women who were left alone. Aside from having to deal with the loneliness that came with the men being at war, many of the women had to learn how to fend for themselves. This included tending to the land, learning to shoot fire arms, and doing many of the things that were considered the “man’s role” at the time. Though the war, in some cases, was taking place far away, the unthinkable brutality of the conflict could still be felt at home.
Set in rural South Carolina, during the final days of the American Civil War, the film revolves around three women forced to defend their farm from a pair of murderous Yankee scouts. Left alone, like so many other women, Augusta (Brit Marling), her teenaged sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their young slave Mad (Muna Otaru) spend their days maintaining the family farm and living off the crops they harvest. When Louise is bitten by an animal in the woods, Augusta must venture out in search of medicine in a time when rations are scarce.
On her travels Augusta encounters, and narrowly escapes the grasps of, two rouge soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller). Not wanting to alarm the others about the violent men roaming the land, August is horrified to discover that the two soldiers have managed to track her down at home. As the men try to infiltrate the house, the three women find themselves in a deadly and unpredictable fight for their lives.
Much of the early talk regarding The Keeping Room has revolved around the fact that Julia Hart’s screenplay landed on Hollywood’s prestigious Black List in 2012. The list is a compilation of all the well-regarded scripts that float around Hollywood but manage to go unproduced by studios. Thanks to Daniel Barber’s skilled direction, the praise can finally shift from the Black List to the film itself. Barber not only brings Hart’s hypnotic script to life, but does not shy away from the dark themes it touches on.
Instead Barber embraces Hart’s dissection of the cruelty of war with eyes wide open. He sets the tone swiftly with a stunning shot of a horse pulling a burning carriage across a desolate road. The audience is fully aware of the events that led to that moment and know that it is only the tip of the iceberg of things to come. However, The Keeping Room is about much more than the evil nature of man. It also offers a unique commentary on the role of women in a world where the social hierarchy has essentially been obliterated.
While characters like Louise try to cling to any small thread of the old way of life, Augusta knows all too well that the divide between man, woman, and slave is all but gone. The women have not only been forced to take on male duties, but they must scrounge for food just like the common slave. In one of the film’s most somber moments, Mad tries to comfort the distraught sisters by recounting a harsh event from her own past. The story only helps to cement that the hardship Augusta and Louise currently find themselves enduring is what most slaves have had to deal with since birth.
Though a gripping and bold film, The Keeping Room does require the audience to overlook some of its missteps. The most notable being its reliance on plot conveniences to keep the overall story moving. There are several moments where characters make decisions, say not shooting someone in the leg when they have the chance, that seem rather implausible. Fortunately for the film, the great performances from Brit Marling and Muna Otaru help to smoothe over these sections.
While the entire cast is effective in their roles, it is Marling and Otaru who bring much humanity to the cruelty on display. Though their characters share a level of commonality, both they and the audience are always aware of the societal roles they must play. Barber ensures that both Augusta’s and Mad’s inner strength is always at the forefront of their actions. The film’s depiction of women managing to remain strong in the face of unspeakable evil is what makes The Keeping Room such an intense and absorbing film.
The film is haunting because, even in its happier times, it never lets go of its eerie and unpredictable feel. Despite its unfortunate moments of convenience, The Keeping Room is one of the more pleasant surprises of the year. It is a welcome addition to the slowly growing canon of films that both feature strong female characters and tell an entrancing story.