In Gone With the Wind, there’s a scene that comes on as it’s from a completely different movie. Scarlett and what remains of her family hole up in their home of Tara, afraid of the arrival of a Union solider, unaware of his intentions. Though it only lasts a few minutes, the threat to Scarlett and Tara is unbelievably tense. The Keeping Room, the latest film from Harry Brown director Daniel Barber, lives in this dark world—set in the vague “American South” at the tail end of the Civil War—where the young able men are fighting, leaving the rest of the world behind and in shambles, terrified of what’s to come.
Sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) are left to tend their family farm, along with their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), while their father and brother are gone to war—very likely dead. Augusta treats Mad like an equal, since they’re all in the same boat, yet Louise still has a hard time adjusting to such a new development.
Augusta has become the alpha, carrying her shotgun with her always…just in case. Mad still seems stuck in her position as slave to these sisters, even though she can now talk to them as equals and sit at the same table. And Louise struggles to move past the comforts of the life she once that is clearly over. Otaru is a stand out, convincingly portraying Mad through dialogue that fails her. Steinfeld is given the greatest arc, yet only grows into a person slightly more than a brat when the film goes down grislier paths. While Marling does present Augusta as a powerful, brave young woman, her accent can mitigate that, sometimes falling into a Forrest Gump-y dialect.
Plus, General Sherman’s march is headed their way, with two Yankee soldiers Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) scouting ahead first, but raping and killing and burning the evidence as they go. When a raccoon bites Louise, Augusta must go into town—a town filled with nothing but abandoned women and men too old to fight—to grab medicine, running into the violent scouts. After a first encounter, the two soldiers head for the farm to finish what they didn’t get a chance to start. Which is when The Keeping Room excels, transforming into a woman-led version of Straw Dogs, even reminiscent of this year’s Slow West. Augusta, Louise and Mad are clearly scared, but their own fight at home—to survive in a world that has turned its back on them—is as harrowing as that of those far away from home.
The Keeping Room for the most part is able to convey the terror that these women clearly feel, and is even is able to bring some humanity to the villainous Union soldiers, but too often it’s frankly on the nose—especially with dialogue. Julia Hart’s screenplay actually has Augusta matter-of-factly state the main theme of the film, asking if things would be different if they were men instead of women. After the Union soldiers attack the farm, Mad gives an emotional speech which Otaru carries despite how nonsensical the monologue is coming from Mad at all, except as a way to once again bluntly point out the film’s main ideas.
Barber is able to create a sinister paradigm of the South, one—very much like a zombie film— perpetually haunted by the ghosts of those who left, with those who remain behind exhausted, accepting that the only world they have left is one filled with monsters. Unfortunately, The Keeping Room concludes just as it teases that the far more interesting story is yet to come, almost as if the entire film had been the first act to the real story—an often exciting, revisionist Western, or at least a great beginning to one.
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Julia Hart
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.