Review: The Keeping Room (2015)


At the tail end of the American Civil War, sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and house slave Mad (Muna Otaru) work a small homestead in the South, waiting for their men to come home and dreading the inevitable advance of the Union Army. When two violently drunk Union scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) show up in their area, the women hole up in their manor house to defend themselves with nothing more than a Winchester rifle and an antique pistol.

One of the first images we see in Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room is a slave barking at an angry dog on a country road. It’s soon followed by a woman fleeing a carriage after having being raped only to be shot down in her escape. These are bold and uncomfortable images. They hit the viewer in the gut. Right from the beginning, Barber is making it clear that women and slaves are at the mercy of vicious men, and the only thing that might protect them is a gun in their hands.

Too bad, then, that The Keeping Room never lives up to these provocative images. Over the course of its tedious 95 minute runtime, it proves itself to be less the feminist western we’re hoping for and more an arty exploitation flick. And what’s worse, it’s a dull exploitation flick, never satisfying as an exercise in tension. It ends up being a tepid contained thriller, merely a lesser version of something like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, with some added social commentary.

The female perspective of The Keeping Room is most welcome. More films should be made about women in the Civil War. But these hypothetical films would be wise to cast a lead actress better than Brit Marling, the indie darling best known for writing and starring in Another Earth and The East. Marling is in near every scene, and her absolute artificiality proves fatal at every turn. There is no contemporary actor who is more self-conscious in his or her acting style, for even an action as simple as handling a spoon reads as dreadfully false with Marling.

Casting Marling is the film’s fatal flaw, but The Keeping Room as a whole is miscalculated and dull. It is neither particular enough in its details of time period or region, nor bold enough in its social commentary, nor even entertaining enough to warrant much interest.

3 out of 10

The Keeping Room (2015, USA)

Directed by Daniel Barber; written by Julia Hart; starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Amy Nutall, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy.

This review was originally published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.