UK Release Date: 17th October 2016
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Julia Hart
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller, Amy Nuttall
Synopsis: Three women are holed up in a house during the dying days of the American Civil War. After a chance encounter with two sinister soldiers, they are forced to defend their home against the well-armed intruders.
In the midst of the recent resurgence of the western, it’s sometimes tough to spot smaller films in the midst of all of the big-budget movies like The Hateful Eight and The Magnificent Seven. A few years ago, Daniel Barber’s feminist western The Keeping Room played the festival circuit and was well-reviewed by critics. It is now finally making its way on to UK DVD and it remains as fiercely compelling and incisive as it was when it was first screened. In the macho world of the frontier, this is a much-needed fresh take.
Augusta (Brit Marling) and her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) live in their southern home with slave Mad (Muna Otaru) as the final days of the American Civil War play out. After Louise is hurt whilst working on the land, Augusta travels to a nearby drinking hole to try to get hold of some medicine. There, she crosses paths with sinister soldiers Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller). The former takes a shine to Augusta and follows her home. The men lay siege to the house and the women are forced to use all of their wits in order to survive.
From its opening moments, it’s clear that The Keeping Room is not an ordinary western. The first scenes feature several eye-openingly brutal murders before the story transfers to the house and the fragile existence of the three women, away from the battlefield. Julia Hart’s script does a tremendous job of exploring what it means to be a woman during the war, including an interesting scene that theorises about what would happen if all of the men simply killed each other. It’s a clever twist on the western that separates The Keeping Room from many of the other male-focused films that have been part of the genre’s return to favour.
Brit Marling is magnetic in the central role as the quietly fierce matriarch of the improvised family unit. She is both a ruthless, protective warrior and an unmistakeably feminine character. The central thesis of the movie is about reconciling femininity with the need to fight and Marling’s character is at the centre of that. Hailee Steinfeld, too, is interesting, although her character isn’t given the same room to grow as Marling’s. Despite these two strong presences, it’s newcomer Muna Otaru who steals every scene in which she appears as the family’s slave. One third act monologue is delivered with the kind of near-silent, simmering intensity that is the hallmark of the entire film. Director Daniel Barber is content to sit back in these scenes, allowing the actors to take centre stage, whilst showcasing his flair in the visceral explosions of sudden, heart-stopping violence.
In a rare role-reversal, it’s the male characters in The Keeping Room who suffer a little. Sam Worthington’s character depth only becomes clear in one utterly gripping final face off with Marling, whilst Kyle Soller struggles to go beyond being a violent drunk. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that there isn’t more meat to the male characters, but that lack of depth also acts as another commentary on the Civil War. The film’s world is one in which men are hollowed out and emptied by conflict, leaving only violence behind.
The Keeping Room is a lean, mean movie with plenty to say about its time period. It’s heartening to see the western back on the big screen, particularly in the hands of filmmakers as talented as Barber. This is a formidable showcase for its trio of central performers and a gripping take on the western, in which brutality is the order of the day.
There’s a brief, but rather interesting, ‘Making Of’ featurette and a commentary track with Marling and Hart.
Pop or Poop?
Strong performances and a script packed with depth ensure that The Keeping Room is a very special addition to the canon of the western. The violence has real potency and the characters are well-rounded and expertly written, ensuring that the final act is a genuinely nail-biting sight for survival.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Unspoken is available on DVD now courtesy of Lionsgate.