We have seen many Civil War movies depicting the horror of battle, the swaths of men left dead on either side, and the idealogical rift that nearly split the country in two. But Julia Hart‘s 2012 Black List script takes an approach that’s refreshing, setting the film during the fading days of the war, on the home front in South Carolina, where silence is a comfort and terror arrives with the sound of approaching horses. There are no grand battleground speeches or widescreen vistas of hundreds of men rushing towards their death. Instead, “The Keeping Room” attempts a blend of sexual curiosity, home invasion horror and elegiac drama, that doesn’t quite work, but whose ambitions are nonetheless compelling.
On their own at the family farm, Augusta (Brit Marling), her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and slave Mad (Muna Otaru) have forged a survivalist domesticity to last out the war. They rarely, if ever, venture off the land, they raise their own vegetables and keep vigilant watch for approaching Yankees, with a rifle always nearby and at hand. The front lines aren’t too far away, and the trio have learned that the war has made the world they once knew unrelentingly cruel, changing the rules. But there are other concerns on the mind of Augusta. At an age when she would usually be married and starting a family, with all eligible men fighting for the cause, she wonders if she will ever have a chance at a normal life. What if none of them return? What will the future hold for her? She’s curious about sex, and asks Mad what it feels like, and her cryptic response foreshadows the suspense to come.
When Louise is bitten by a raccoon, Augusta is forced to ride into the nearest town to find medicine. She arrives to find a fraught atmosphere, commanded by the dangerous leering of two drunken Yankee scouts, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller). They are a dangerous pair, with their viciousness established in the film’s harrowing cold open in which a raped woman is shot as she tries to flee, a black woman who witness the event is shot in the head and a carriage driver is killed, set ablaze along with the carriage. This war has made such behavior routine, and seeing the beautiful Augusta, who barely escapes their clutches from the store, the pair sets out to track her down for their enjoyment.
There are a variety of interesting elements at play, but are both too numerous and underdeveloped. Pitting sexual arousal and awakening versus sexual intercourse as a weapon is powerful, but the film and script never fully commit to Augusta’s inner conflict with those concerns. Additionally, Mad’s status in the household, essentially on equal footing with her former masters, offers more room for exploration that never gets the further attention it warrants. Indeed, as the last third of the movie shifts towards a cat and mouse affair with the arrival of Moses and Henry, it becomes a rather standard, and even frustrating thriller, dressed up in period trappings. The script, in particular, is a let down during the climax, with far too many instances of characters being knocked out cold only to wake up at a crucial moment. And while Daniel Barber (“Harry Brown“) directs with skill, his enthusiasm clearly lies more with the genre elements than the subtext.
However, the technical accomplishments of the film can’t be understated. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe (“The American,” “Control“) provides a beautiful, but also multi-faceted backdrop for “The Keeping Room.” From the film’s quieter, sun-dappled, nature-focused earlier sequences to the dark interior environs as the story becomes more enclosed, Ruhe manages a naturally evolving look for “The Keeping Room.” Meanwhile, the shifting moods are aided by the atmospheric score by Martin Phipps (“Brighton Rock,” “Peaky Blinders“), memorable work that lays down much of the dramatic groundwork. With both Ruhe and Phipps previously working with Barber on “Harry Brown,” he was wise to give them a ring for this project.
Yet, as gorgeous and well acted as the film is (everyone keep an eye on Otaru who does some fine work here), “The Keeping Room” can never manage to add up its disparate parts. Barber’s attempts to reach for big ideas within the context of an original take on the Civil War movie is admirable, but the film always feels just beyond his grasp. That said, “The Keeping Room” does at least announce him as a director worth keeping an eye on. Once Barber sharpens his tools and hones in on his strengths as a filmmaker, he will certainly deliver some truly great work. [C+]