by Matt Levine
Aside from the sheer visceral thrills they offer, the purportedly tawdry genres of B-moviedom carry another benefit: a seemingly exploitative action-thriller plot, fueled by revenge or a warped notion of justice, might also provide an especially nasty metaphor for the baseness of human nature (or American society in particular). This was the juggling act that Samuel Fuller specialized in throughout his career, turning such unassuming genre pictures as Shock Corridor and White Dog into expressions of American madness and racism; it’s also the approach taken by films such as Superfly (1972) and Ms. 45 (1981), which disguise their vitriolic comments on racism, urban violence, and gender oppression in the bloodsoaked trappings of lurid crime thrillers.
Landmark Edina Cinema
Director: Daniel Barber
Producers: Jordan Horowitz, David McFadzean, Dete Meserve, Patrick Newall, Judd Payne
Writer: Julia Hart
Cinematographer: Martin Ruhe
Editor: Alex Rodríguez
Music: Martin Phipps
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock
Premiere: September 8, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 25, 2015
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
The Keeping Room, directed by Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) and written by Julia Hart (whose acclaimed screenplay made the rounds in Hollywood for years before it was picked up), is one such film. It strands three women deep in the American South in 1865, where they’ve been abandoned by men who have wandered off to play their absurd games of war. Forced to fend for themselves and expected to sustain family homes on the verge of collapse, the women must also contend with roaming Union soldiers and Confederate deserters, who drunkenly ogle every solitary female as prey waiting to be victimized. Although The Keeping Room is too mannered and self-conscious to make a strong emotional impact, it’s still a lean, engrossing thriller with a pulsing feminism that plays out through intense genre mechanics.
An opening epigraph suggests a bleak, existential comment on the viciousness of humanity: “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” (The words were uttered by William Tecumseh Sherman, whose catastrophic march through the Southern states effectively ended the Civil War and visualized a wartorn hell on earth.) We then find ourselves on a dusty southern road, where a black woman—a slave whose owners, it seems, have vanished—encounters a stagecoach on the trail. Another woman emerges from the carriage, terrified, fleeing across the grass; a lecherous Yankee soldier steps out after her, guns her down, and re-buckles his pants, the threat of rape pervasive from the start. Two more people are killed seconds later. It’s a harsh opening that suggests the movie’s historical setting as a figurative depiction of manmade hell, a land ruled by war and cruelty.
The Union soldier, Henry (Kyle Soller), and his slightly-less-awful counterpart Moses (Sam Worthington) trek through a nameless state, eventually coming across three isolated women: Augusta (Brit Marling), her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their former slave Mad (Muna Otaru). Abandoned by her father and brother, who (like most male southerners) have left to join the Confederate army, Augusta now does most of the work to sustain the family farm—chopping wood, hoeing the soil, hunting in the woods, and so on. Louise still abides by her society’s former prejudices, believing herself to be superior to Mad and too refined for the fieldwork Augusta asks her to do, but as her older sister reminds Louise, “We’re all niggers now.” (It’s the first of many times that racial and sexual oppression are loosely paralleled, and even though the dialogue is thought-provoking it’s also a little too pointedly significant.)
The women are forced to band together when Henry and Moses bombard their home, having followed Augusta from a destitute trading post. The middle portion of the film bears some resemblance to Straw Dogs, not only with a tense home-invasion sequence but with a chilling rape scene as well (albeit one that’s less controversial and reprehensible than Straw Dogs’, as it takes place mostly offscreen). This suspenseful portion of the film—shot and edited with maximum efficiency, following characters that are at least somewhat believable—is the movie’s high point and often feels like its climax, making the film’s narrative structure a little off-kilter. That being said, The Keeping Room ends in appropriately apocalyptic fashion, the three women venturing into the unknown as their land burns in the distance, torched by Sherman’s armies; the cruelty of war (either gendered or otherwise) is portrayed unambiguously, though there’s no suggestion that such cruelty will make it end any sooner.
It’s appropriate to lament that this would have been a prime opportunity for a young female director in American cinema, although it’s hard to find fault with Daniel Barber’s direction. With only two features to his name (also including Harry Brown, the crime pic starring Michael Caine), Barber displays a fine grasp of editing and cinematography to ratchet up the suspense; during the film’s more thrilling scenes, there is no extraneous shot or wasted moment. Aided by exceptionally rich camerawork courtesy of Martin Ruhe (The American), Barber makes the most of the surrealist flashes in Julia Hart’s screenplay, like scenes of a flaming stagecoach or a gleaming white horse tearing across a lush Southern landscape. Hart’s screenwriting, meanwhile, is swift and efficient, developing characters very quickly and trying (half-successfully) to convey her themes in a subtle, organic fashion.
Both Hart and Barber are responsible for The Keeping Room’s main defect, though, which basically boils down to an insecure desire to prove how weighty and meaningful the movie is. This is especially noticeable (and frustrating) in the performances and the dialogue delivery, which are slow, studied, and awkwardly emphatic, draining the verisimilitude from what is otherwise a very convincing portrait of 1865 America (the costumes and art direction, by Luminita Lungu and Adrian Curelea respectively, seem painstakingly detailed). The characters sometimes speak in cryptic messages and somber monologues, the dreariness of the delivery only emphasizing their artificiality. In the three lead roles, Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru do some fine work although they seem to be working against misguided direction and occasionally self-indulgent writing. It might sound crass to criticize an allegory of sexual victimization for taking itself too seriously, but if The Keeping Room had believed more in its characters and less in the vital profundity of its ideas, it might have been emotionally resonant as well as tense and thought-provoking.
As it is, though, The Keeping Room is a unique and entertaining thriller with social ramifications well beyond its lean genre storyline. By setting the story in a Civil War-era South, The Keeping Room not only highlights one of the most fraught and unjust periods for women in American history; it also likens the oppression and exploitation of women to the foolhardy military decisions of men more generally, seeing misogyny as a pathetic extension of man’s innate inclination towards violence. And indeed, the all-inclusive “man” is the right label to use here: The Keeping Room hardly attempts to portray some men as kind and tolerant, as the only non-villainous males die in very swift fashion. It’s a sweeping denunciation of despotic patriarchy in general, and its simplified gender codes can be excused as a metaphorical depiction of war (north versus south, white versus black, male versus female) that condemns the concept of oppression more than it portrays its specific iterations. This is even conveyed through some gratifying lines of dialogue, as when Augusta tells Louise and Mad (who have been locked in a bedroom with a pistol), “If a man comes through, no matter what, you shoot.”
While such a binary depiction of warring factions have led some to criticize the movie as nihilistic, I find its metonymic depiction of sexual violence its most interesting aspect—as though the movie bristles with the quiet outrage of a legacy of female victimization in the American past. That animosity just happens to take the form of a wicked thriller with a tough, concise plot. This is the benefit of smuggling social commentary into the style of raw genre filmmaking: you can get away with a harsh, pessimistic outlook if the audience assumes they’re simply watching an unadorned suspense movie. No matter what flaws The Keeping Room has, it maintains this tradition of ambitious and insidious exploitation movies that provoke as much as they excite.