[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The Keeping Room opens today in limited release.]
Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room begins with a quote from Union General William Tecumseh Sherman: “War is cruelty, there is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” The Keeping Room takes place during war, but it is not about war, at least not in the traditional sense of soldiers on a battlefield. It is more about cruelty; specifically, the cruelty visited upon women. The threat of rape pervades the entire story, and Barber maintains the tension without ever feeling exploitative. Although the dialogue can be a little too on the nose, the weight of the narrative and Brit Marling’s powerful performance make the dread palatable throughout this painfully relevant tale.
Set in the American South in 1865, Augusta (Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their former slave Mad (Muna Otaru) scrape by on their small homestead. Augusta and Louise’s brother and father were killed in the Civil War, and now they survive by remaining isolated. When a raccoon bites Louise, Augusta is forced to ride into town, which is where she encounters Yankee soldiers Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller). The two men track her back home, and the trio of women must defend themselves from the violent, amoral soldiers.
The first scene lays out the “cruelty” mentioned in the quote, and cleverly shows how Moses and Henry’s brutality towards women has reached the point where they can disrupt traditional narrative conventions. There’s no safety for women in this environment, which may as well be post-apocalyptic due to its lack of supplies, dearth of people, and barren fields. The 1865 setting also serves a narrative purpose because Barber doesn’t tell us when in 1865 the story takes place, so we don’t know if the Civil War is over yet. For our three protagonists, there’s no end in sight.
It’s sad and disturbing, but also true that we innately know if Henry and Moses reach the women, the women will be raped before they’re killed. Even as the movie slowly lurches through its first half, Barber maintains a quiet, lonesome tone. Reduced by war and poverty, there’s no social distinction that make Augusta and Louise any safer than Mad. “We’re all n***ers now,” Augusta tells Louise when Louise tries to put all the farming on Mad. The same applies towards their power against men. Their only defense is a single rifle.
Our sympathy is squarely with the three women, or it should be if you’re not a horrible human being. What makes The Keeping Room resonate is that it extends past the setting. We know that women today aren’t safe from sexual assault, and they’re certainly not free from the threat of rape as the scum of the Earth lob these threats across the Internet. These males on the Internet aren’t in the same circumstances as Moses and Henry, but I shudder to think what they would do if they were. Is opportunity the only thing separating these cruel men from their actions?
Julia Hart’s script does note that Moses and Henry don’t represent their entire gender and that there are good men in the world. But this fact doesn’t change Augusta, Louise, and Mad’s circumstances. It’s on these women to fight back, and while we want to see them destroy their aggressors, their ability to do so is far from certain. Barber refuses to soften their story for their benefit or ours.
So it’s odd when he feels the need to have Mad spout themes and kernels of wisdom in such a restrained picture. We already know the stakes and the subtext, and it feels condescending when we get lines like “There are many monsters in this world.” We get so much more from the tone and the performances, especially Marling. She says so much with just a look that conveys pain, fear, and determination. Augusta is a strong woman, but she’s not hardened or detached. She’s compassionate and relatable, and that makes her a person rather than a hero or an exemplar. The character is not a guide; she’s just trying to survive and protect the people she loves.
War reduces humans to survival instincts, but women are never removed from the battlefield even when they’re at the homestead. The movie may not be multifaceted, and while Worthington tries to add a little shading to Moses, the sense that “Men are cruel,” and the extent of their wrath is almost too much. Nevertheless, The Keeping Room is a direct piece that hits hard and constantly. It’s exhausting, and it should be. Sherman was wrong about the end of cruelty.