“The Keeping Room” more of an essay than a film
- Critic Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
- The violence is hard on the viewer, with little narrative fallout.
- An explosive opening precedes a sparse plot that lacks thrill.
“The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” “The Keeping Room” tells us of the war; if only it were the same for the duration of the film. Set in the South during the last days of the Civil War, three women hide in the skeleton of a war-weary house, two guns between them and a will to survive in the face of worsening odds.
It’s a tough world for women – always has been – and “The Keeping Room” desperately wants to be a poetic treatise on female strength and determination. But despite its rarity and haunting photography, the film turns out to be little more than a low-thrill home invasion thriller.
It all started promisingly, with a volley of uncompromising violence: rape, gunshot to the head, cart set on fire and rolling. The two Yankee soldiers responsible get closer to three recalcitrant from the South: Augusta (Brit Marling), head of his family now devastated for lack of men; his little sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), who resists the necessary maturity imposed on her; and Mad (Muna Otaru), their former slave who has become an equal by circumstances.
The opening is explosive, dark, insane; what follows is atmospheric boredom. The three women roam the bare bones of their plantation, cultivating in silence, sleeping in empty rooms, helping themselves to bowls of anemic stew and saying little. Augusta is the de facto matriarch, while the hard-working Mad proves to be an inexhaustible source of popular and cliché wisdom. Young Louise turns out to be the joker and, after an unsupervised jaunt in the woods, ends up falling ill and a raccoon, forcing Augusta out of the protection of their home and into the ravaged world of the drug research.
The violence that besets the trio of women at the hands of the Yankee Boy Scouts is harsh on the viewer, but the narrative payoff is too meager to justify the experience. The film is so bald in its themes, with characters openly stating their narrative function and philosophies, that it feels less like a story than an essay on the South.
“The guard room”
Director: Daniel Barber.
To throw: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington.
Evaluation: R for severe violence including sexual assault.
To note: At Harkins Camelview.