A shot about 30 minutes into The Keeping Room’s running time embodies the film’s aesthetic, following a woman as she rides a white horse through a countryside that’s both beautiful and primordially forbidding. The surreal whiteness of the horse, taken with the lush greens of the landscape, strikes a chord of fantasy within a setting—the American South during the Civil War—that’s all too real. Suggestions of otherworldliness, which are intensified by other colors, particularly the blacks of the shadows that engulf the various bars, shacks, and country houses that populate the film, point up the seeming unreality of the war, which turned all notions of stability into a perverse joke. The landscapes are gorgeous but unsettlingly empty, humming with the menace of what might be coming to fill the emptiness from just the other side of the mountain. The men are gone, killing each other for the war, while the women are trapped playing out the normative roles of both women and men. Director Daniel Barber visually likens one of the most troubled portions of American history to a brief, contained apocalypse that continues to inform the sexual and racial contours of the United States’s culture.
The role women played in the Civil War remains a subject that’s under-plumbed by cinema, and this novelty joins with Barber and cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s stylistics to inform The Keeping Room with a pointedly brutal pulse. The prospect of rape hangs over the film like a malevolent pall. One wonders when a rogue collection of thin, hairy soldiers will happen upon the house inhabited by Augusta (Brit Marling), her sister, Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their former slave, Mad (Muna Otaru), and stir up deeply disgusting trouble. This curiosity is nurtured by cross-cutting that shows us the exploits of Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), two debauched Union soldiers cutting a path of violation throughout the land. Augusta soon clashes with Moses at a dying business that simultaneously serves as the only bar, convenience store, or pharmacy for 50 miles, and the second half of the narrative is set into inexorable motion.
As with Barber’s prior film, Harry Brown, The Keeping Room is both impressively and reductively intense. The film’s well-acted and tautly edited and shot, and the characters’ pat internal energies efficiently contrast with each other so as to move all the players toward an inevitable siege climax. (Augusta is the proto-feminist survivor, Louise is vulnerable and not-quite-grown, with complacently racist views of the time, and Mad is a loyal servant with a reservoir of strength and anguish that’s logical and inevitable given her situation.) But the film’s self-consciously arty reserve grows tedious. One’s always aware of The Keeping Room as a revisionist western that’s intended to highlight oppressions that remain relevant—an impression that’s heightened by an abundance of editorializing dialogue, such as Augusta’s assertion that “we’re all niggers” in the heat of the Civil War (of course, she’s referring only to women and uncertainly untethered slaves). The apocalyptic atmosphere is confidently rendered, but also unvarying and ultimately numbing: Barber uses a bleak and unresolved portion of American history to justify indulging typical genre-film nihilism.