In a recent interview, Quentin Tarantino made an excellent point how westerns take on the socio-political elements of their respective eras. It’s quite an astute point. In an excellent piece of criticism, Gita Jackson examines why women see more horror movies than men – her point being that horror films are the only place in the cultural zeitgeist that tells them their fears are real. These two points intersect at The Keeping Room, the new revisionist western directed by Daniel Barber, a film that is as much a horror film as it is a western.
The film opens with a bang – acts of violence that will set the stage for what is to follow. In the Deep South in 1865, the Civil War is nearing its conclusion as Sherman and his men are marching closer to Georgia. Two Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) who have broken off from their units brutally murder three people, one of whom was raped. Setting the carriage afire, the two continue their bloodthirsty trek through the South. Not far, Augusta (Brit Marling) is tending to her home with her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). The three women have built a solid bond in their secluded surroundings, but the lingering stench of death is never far from their minds as their family has been slain in the ongoing conflict. When Augusta must ride into town for medicine following an animal bite to Louise, she draws the attention of the two brutal Yankees. The two drunken brutes will follow Augusta and aim to rape and pillage the trio of women.
The Keeping Room is very much a modern film that analyzes the problems of today through the lens of the past. This script by Julia Hart looks at the Rape Culture by placing it in an isolated setting during one of our darkest moments in history. The threat of sexual violence hovers over these three women as they’re hounded by the brutish rapists. But these are not damsels in distress. Oh no, these three characters are able to hold their own and defend themselves. Every little sound or movement in the shadows builds the tension, as if these are people who’ve locked themselves away from gruesome monsters, though these monsters aren’t of a supernatural variety.
Amazingly, the ugly events of The Keeping Room look beautiful due to the work of director Daniel Barber and cinematographer Martin Ruhe. One particular shot of the women ascending a staircase holding lanterns is striking in its artistry. And other shots within the secluded woods carry a remarkable contrast between the light and shadows, a textured marvel of composition.
However, there are a few rough patches within The Keeping Room that prevent it from being more than just a good movie. First of all, the film really skirts the issue of slavery – the relationship between Mad and the sisters that own her is all but glossed over with a line or two of dialogue. Secondly, Brit Marling is really uneven as Augusta, the head of the fractured household. She seemingly flip flops between someone more than capable of taking care of herself and others and someone that is uncertain how to hold a gun, but her moments of weakness never are in line with her character. The rest of the actors, though, avail themselves well. Hailee Steinfeld is continually one of the finest young actresses working today, and Muna Otaru gives a strong performance as the underappreciated slave. Most surprisingly, Sam Worthington continues to do his best work as a supporting player. Between this and Everest, perhaps this realization that the Austrailian actor isn’t meant to headline the biggest action franchises has taken hold and he’ll continue to impress in supporting roles.
The Keeping Room is a revisionist western that is of its era, and it’s a horror film about the looming threat of sexual abuse. Sure, I could say that this film might need to come with trigger warning scrawled all over it, but some are is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, and The Keeping Room is most certainly that. It’s a well-shot film of slowly increasing tension that is unflinching in the terror that its characters must endure. With a brisk running time, The Keeping Room encapsulates the very quote by William Tecumseh Sherman that opens the film, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”