Screenplays appearing on Hollywood’s venerated “Black List” survey of the top unproduced work don’t always lead to satisfactory projects, but at the very least they feature compelling hooks. Julia Hart’s “The Keeping Room,” a Civil War-set drama in which three women fend off threatening Yankee scouts, certainly has that. What’s more surprising is how well it delivers on the premise.
Tensely directed by Daniel Barber (“Harry Brown”), “The Keeping Room” takes place almost entirely in the confines of a barren South Carolina farm, but it’s dense with physical activity and grander implications about gender, race and American progress. The action has the paranoid intensity of a grisly Peckinpah western, but develops it through a progressive historical lens that foregrounds its originality.
Set in the rural South of 1865, “The Keeping Room” unfolds in the final moments of the Civil War, as northern troops progress towards victory. But those events take place well beyond the awareness of the three women at its center: Augusta (Brit Marling), her teenage sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), who’s the same age as Augusta. As all the men in their lives vanished long ago on the battle field, the women exist in a static world, waiting for a salvation that they’ve started to realize will never come.
However, while things may never return to normal, they aren’t destined to remain unchanged, either. In the horrifically suspenseful opener, a pair of bearded soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) kill two women and set a horse-driven carriage aflame for no apparent reason other than their own twisted desires.
From there, the focus shifts to the three women, whose options continue to dwindle. Despite keeping a maternal eye on her sister, Augusta’s confidence has started to fray, while Mad’s role in the household shifts from slave to fellow survivor.
Despite its tightly-wound 95 minute length, “The Keeping Room” takes its time establishing the grim atmosphere. Expert cinematographer Martin Ruhe, whose black-and-white work on the Joy Division drama “Control” gave the material an otherworldly eeriness, achieves a similar effect with the grey tones here. Holed up in the cabin and contemplating a future without men, the women face the prospects of an apocalypse with a credible sense of dread.
When the Yankees show up in town, the story transforms into a minimalist showdown in which the power dynamics keep shifting around with mesmerizing intensity. Bullets fly and bodies fall, but not always where you might expect.
The violent incursions in the concluding 45 minute stretch don’t always dodge clichés. Look out for the usual trope where the bad guy resists pulling the trigger just long enough for someone to take action. The mournful score goes a little too far in its quest to manipulate the tone. But even as “The Keeping Room” plays with formulaic ingredients, it manages to combine them into an eloquent portrait of gender, race and the constant march of time without overstating any of its potent themes.
Barber’s direction ensures that the pace barrels forward, but the true accomplishment lies with Hart’s script, which manages to give the scenario a shrewd specificity. Starting with Augusta’s statement that “we all niggas now,” the plot foregrounds its characters’ struggles against the barriers stacked against them. But while stone-faced Marling plays lady of the house Augusta with a depth of feeling that results in her best role to date, the real discovery is Otaru, who performs two rousing monologues about her lifelong struggles that place the entire state of affairs in a much broader canvas.
By contrast, the two men hankering to rape and pillage the farm come across in more simplistic terms — as scowling villains with no motivation other than sheer lunacy — though later scenes reconsider their situation through a more nuanced lens. Both artful period drama and first-rate thriller, “The Keeping Room” is smarter than it looks.
The payoff in its concluding segment, capped by an epic closing shot, asserts that the women’s personal war can’t stop the steady advance of history. The narrative begins with a downbeat quote by Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman asserting that “there is no use in trying to reform” the cruelty of war, but the stars of “The Keeping Room” still manage to fight ahead. A feminist western with bite, the movie features a compelling portrait of resistance. Its events may unfold in the past, but the struggles speak to the present with the same canny focus.
“The Keeping Room” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.