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New Release Review - THE KEEPING ROOM

In the dying days of the US civil war, three women defend their home from male aggressors.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Daniel Barber

Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall



There are no extended shootouts - this isn't an action movie by any means - but every time a bullet is fired the consequence is made explicit; this is a film more concerned with the gruesome aftermath of violence than the cinematic thrills of the act itself.



No wars are fun, but few tend to be such uncivil affairs as civil wars. The old cliché describes it as a brother versus brother conflict, but in most civil wars, from Rwanda to Yugoslavia to Syria, it's often women who bear the brunt. With entire communities shod of their male populations, opportunists commit mass rape in the safe knowledge that men are too busy dying on a battlefield to come to the aid of their wives, mothers, daughters, sisters. The US civil war was no different. Far from the noble image portrayed in John Ford's cavalry films, renegade members of the Union Army regularly engaged in a campaign of rape and murder against Southern women in the dying days of the conflict, committing atrocities from town to town, farm to farm.

It's against this backdrop that The Keeping Room unfolds. A taut opening sequence, ending in an explosion of violence, introduces us to pair of Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) who have broken away from their army and are intent on leaving a trail of corpses in their wake.


Meanwhile, three women - white sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (modern western stalwart Hailee Steinfeld) and black maid/slave Mad (Muna Otaru) - live in isolation on their farm, the menfolk having long ago deserted them for the combat zone. They're struggling to subsist on the vegetables the land provides, but they're managing just okay, and while she's by no means the equal of the other women, Mad is in a far better situation than when the farm's men were present. As Augusta remarks in the bluntness of her time, "We're all n*ggers now!"

When Louise is bitten by a rattlesnake, Augusta sets off on horseback in search of medicine, leading her to a saloon where she escapes a potentially fatal encounter with the aforementioned renegade Union duo. This doesn't deter the pair, who set off on their way to her farm, determined to have their way with Augusta and any other women they find along the way.


2016 has been a pretty great year for westerns, offering up the likes of Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight and contemporary B-western Go With Me. The big letdown was Jane Got a Gun, but The Keeping Room more than fills in the feminist western gap that movie failed to seal. Director Daniel Barber's film gives us gals with guns, but never in the exploitative manner of something like 1994's Drew Barrymore vehicle Bad Girls.

The women here wield firearms, but they're by no means comfortable handling them. This is one western the NRA won't be promoting, as guns cause as much suffering in the hands of the protagonists as the villains. The presumed safety of a pistol falls apart when Mad finds it refusing to fire when confronted by one of the soldiers, a scenario that ends in disturbing fashion. Elsewhere, Augusta's lack of combat experience backfires in fatal fashion upon the pull of a trigger.

From the opening scene, Barber and screenwriter Julia Hart set us on edge with the viciousness of Worthington and Soller's war criminals, reinforcing this throughout the film and creating a tangible fear for the fate of the three central women. There are no extended shootouts - this isn't an action movie by any means - but every time a bullet is fired the consequence is made explicit; this is a film more concerned with the gruesome aftermath of violence than the cinematic thrills of the act itself.


Worthington is one of the most maligned actors working today, probably second only to his fellow countryman Jai Courtney when it comes to online derision, but his casting against type as an irredeemable scumbag here really pays off. He's genuinely intimidating, more animal than human, his character quoting the inspirational but irresponsible speeches of Union Generals as justification for unforgivable actions.

The real find is British actress Muna Otaru. In her first substantial role she's an instant star, pulling off a Southern accent in far more convincing fashion than many Americans have managed over the years. Her Mad is a character that really needed to be handled with kid gloves, but Otaru pulls it off with dignity, and her delivery of a monologue concerning her treatment at the hands of men - an anecdote told to provide strength and comfort to the other two women while reminding them of their privilege - is both chilling and heartbreaking to watch. A glance at IMDB tells me Otaru hasn't worked since shooting The Keeping Room in 2014, which may tell you something about the legacy of the US civil war.

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