Racking up just 2 1/2 stars on Netflix (as of 10th January 2016), The Keeping Room‘s quiet, unappreciated presence is puzzling given its hook. Three young Southern women left to defend their land against, well, anything, during the American Civil War. Two sisters and their slave. That in itself should prove a draw for some positivity as American Civil War films tend to focus more on the men going to war and the effects on their families, rather than isolating the story on female survival. To be fair, Gone With the Wind does feature Southern women coping while the men are at war, however it is overshadowed by the tempestuous relationship between Rhett and Scarlett. The fact that Augusta (Brit Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad (Muna Otaru) are the sole focus of the film, allows us to hone in on their situation without distraction.
Thankfully, their dynamic isn’t rosy; it’s raw. Augusta is the elder daughter who has taken charge and is calmly dominant, Louise is a teenager who wants to be Lady of the Manor rather than get her elbows dirty, and is bigoted towards their slave Mad, who carries out her tasks as she has always done. Mad always appears as if she wants to spit some truths out, but is unsure despite the somewhat equal status the three are beginning to share. An heiress (by lack of men), her demanding teenage sister and their slave sounds almost like “they walk into a bar”. It’s rather fascinating that without the backdrop of the Civil War, there’s little possibility of the trio being so united despite their positions in society.
The film, being independent, is in no hurry to press on with the plot, savouring everything going on in the scene: the pace matches the slow, hostile surroundings. This shouldn’t put anyone off from viewing, as For such a barren land, danger hangs over them like a promise. It’s almost apocalyptic. The region is tense and the viewer becomes absorbed in that tension. Uneasiness settles into the audience when they await the masculine violence on the horizon. On the hunt for medicine for Louise’s raccoon bite, Augusta is warned by a tavern owner that it’s not safe for her to be there, cut to two Union soldiers in the corner drinking and eyeing her up. With hardly any men present (the tavern owner seems to be the only man in the area), any woman is fair game. Any traditional gender conventions are non-existent at this point.
In the opening credits, William Tecumseh Sherman is quoted: ‘War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.’ There’s a hardened statement if ever spoken; a justification for all-out violence. Moses, one of the Union soldiers, parrots this in a stand-off with Augusta to explain his thirst for pain and destruction. They’re both right: war is cruelty, yet I can’t agree with the level of cruelty dictating its status. The heavier the atrocity, the more likely the retaliation. Retaliation doesn’t necessarily result in finality. Well, in order to survive the three women have to resort to delving into violence.
The Keeping Room itself provides warmth, food and domestic cohesion (which ends up being cathartic), however it’s not immediately considered as a place to arm and guard themselves. Despite being associated with female domesticity, it doesn’t serve as protection against masculine violence, therefore they can only seek sanctuary by barricading themselves in the house once belonging to men, and arming themselves with the guns of their menfolk as well. Additionally, the women don men’s clothes knowing full well that they will be able to carry out their subversive duties with little harassment.
Could the film benefit from a little more backstory? Of course. I also felt that, despite voicing their reasons for committing their appalling acts, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) are never fleshed out. Villains are villains, and yes, their actions speak for their thought processes, but even villains need some backstory. Although we know they’ve broken off from the impending Union Army to forge their own path, we never really get a sense of who they are. The subtle difference: Henry is a drunkard who enjoys the company of women (whether they like it or not), but is also unpredictable. As for Moses: he’s composed and more controlled. He has the ability to mess with your head in the way that you don’t know whether you’re safe or in danger in his presence.
Thankfully, The Keeping Room has received positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, as it deserves. Its indie status shouldn’t deter lovers of fast-paced, action thrillers (guns, cars, international gangs and the like): this can invoke the same thrills felt watching the latter. At (reaching) 1 hour 50, a further 10 minutes could’ve been better spent with the villains in order to increase our fear of them even more, thus making their presence more devastating on the viewer. A 2 hour film would undoubtedly not be taxing for audiences.