In “The Keeping Room”, two sisters and a slave girl defend their plantation from a pair of violent Union soldiers in the waning days of the Civil War. A brutal and unsentimental portrait of the cruelties of war not only on the battlefield, but also at home, the film opens with an ominous scene of violent cruelty, setting the tone for what gradually becomes a bleaker and bleaker (but always captivating) viewing experience.
Dark and almost belligerently atmospheric, the film stars indie queen Brit Marling as Augusta, a woman who, alongside little sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and family slave Mad (Muna Otaru), keeps her South Carolina farmstead going in the absence of her Confederate soldier father and deceased mother. The three women live a miserable but uneventful existence, until Augusta inadvertently draws the attention of two yankee “boomers” (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) – scouts sent ahead of the approaching victorious Union army to rape and pillage the countryside.
Where Augusta is hardened and resigned to her new tough life in the wake of war, teenaged Louise is obstinate and resentful, especially when it comes to incorporating slave girl Mad into their makeshift family unit. “She’s the nigger, why can’t she do it?” she asks early in the film, when ordered to help with the farming.
“I told you,” Augusta wearily replies, “We’re all niggers now.”
It’s this idea that the film clings to – that the cruelty and brutality of war is a great equalizer, redefining gender roles and making racial hierarchies obsolete. In one scene, Mad defiantly slaps Augusta, a jarring reminder that the order of things is rapidly changing. And most of the first act of the film, slow-paced and methodical, consists of the three women coming to terms with these changes – Louise’s racist conditioning miraculously melting away; Augusta embracing the role of pseudo-patriarch; and Mad growing deeper into her own personhood.
It would be nice to see the power dynamics at play unpacked a little bit more, but the overwrought dialogue is eventually buried by Barber’s deeper interest in wringing out terror and suspense from every frame, to the detriment of character development. The Union soldiers who terrorize the women and galvanize them to fight back, edge dangerously close to the side of moustache twirling villains – luckily, a few quieter, more thoughtful scenes between Marling and Worthington, a problematic but at times sympathetic character, balances things out.
As visually captivating and suspenseful as this moving is, one can’t help but notice that, at pivotal moments, the narrative tends to buckle under the weight of too many interesting ideas – ideas about class, race, and gender – that are touched on, but never explored to their full potential. This is most evident in the character of Mad (brilliantly played by Ontaru), who works mostly as a device for teaching her two white female counterparts life lessons about the cruel realities of the world.
Still, despite its few narrative flaws, “The Keeping Room” is a necessary addition to on screen depictions of the American Civil War – few movies have given female characters such prominence and such agency, presented with such a clear-eyed and steely grit. It’s best to watch this movie without the expectation of it having a terrible lot to say – it isn’t designed to say anything more than it does in its first few scenes. Its strength lies in its brutality which is, for better or worse, the most interesting thing about it.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.