It’s 1865, the waning days of the Civil War. The South has been defeated, and Sherman is marching across Georgia, burning everything in his path. The small towns and farms in South Carolina are populated and run almost exclusively by women. All of the men have joined the war effort, and the majority of them will never come home. This is the setting for The Keeping Room, the newest film from director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown).
Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) along with one African-American slave (Muna Otaru) tend a small garden and hunt animals in the woods surrounding their home. Like the other women living nearby, they are waiting to see if husbands, brothers, and fathers return from the war. When Augusta rides to a nearby general store to find medicine for her sister, she crosses the paths of two rogue Union soldiers who are killing and looting their way through the countryside in advance of Sherman’s arrival. After this chance encounter, Augusta knows that the survival of the three women is no longer a matter of simply finding food. The enemy has arrived at their doorstep.
Although this is neither the typical setting nor time period for a Western, The Keeping Room plays like one. There’s no silent, mysterious stranger dealing out his brand of justice to a variety of villains. Instead, it is a small-scale story of two women defending their home and way of life from a seemingly unstoppable force. Race doesn’t matter. Being the slave or the master is irrelevant. In the end, it’s three women abandoned by necessity to the forces of the outside world. Their bond is the fact they are considered to be the weaker gender. To the approaching army, they are no longer people. They’re the spoils of war.
To the betterment of the film, the performances are free of histrionics, monologues and emoting. Sam Worthington is effectively matter-of-fact as the leader of the two rogue soldiers. There is no gleeful, evil laughter or silly sinister affectations. The conflict in The Keeping Room is Darwinian. The men know they are the stronger gender, and they will take as they please. Brit Marling plays Augusta as a quiet force. She’s worldly enough to understand the threat the men represent, but she must find the resolve and the ability to stand her ground.
The Keeping Room begins slowly with small character accents. It initially appears to be another in a long line of existential Westerns with minimalist story-telling. Thankfully, that’s not the case. It’s not a thriller or an action film, and it doesn’t aspire to be. It gives the audience time to emotionally invest in these three characters as the momentum builds toward its tense conclusion. The Keeping Room is in limited theatrical release and plays mostly on the festival circuit. Hopefully, it will soon find a home on VOD platforms as well. Seek it out. It’s worth your time.
For more 2015 Chattanooga Film Festival Coverage, click here.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.