MSPIFF 2015 Review: The Keeping Room

There have been hundreds of films about life after war. Dozens about life after The American Civil War. But the consequences of war from the women’s perspective seems few and far between when it comes to the flicker show. Painting a picture of post Civil War America in the south, from the point of view of the women left alone is a wonderful concept. The world depicted is a dreadful hardship and almost surreal in nature. Not all of the parts in this machine work as well within the general idea but it’s competent enough to make a person stop and think about what they saw. And if nothing else, it’s got some tense and exciting (and brutally gruesome) action/thriller moments with muskets and revolvers.

Looking at the image above you might think you’re about to stumble into yet another zombie movie. But you’d be wrong… but in a way, you’d be right. America had ripped itself apart at this moment in time and what was left in some of the country was an utter wasteland. The men in the area were all dead or captured, fled or on some sort of political mission. The women were left fending for themselves. What men are left are drifters, scoundrels and drunkards; looking to kill, loot, rape and burn anything they come across. Which of course is partly due to being exposed to the horrors of war first hand and suffering from a then undiagnosed PTSD. They don’t know how to stop killing.

“War is cruel” opens the picture. This is of course nothing new to audiences but war can be equally cruel to the innocents left behind and the Confederacy left standing (or not standing) feels just like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Straying too far from home might get you killed. Keeping a fire lit or firing a rifle shot might attract unwanted attention from roughians. But the worst scenario is that you’re a woman. Wearing a red shirt in a “Star Trek” episode would be safer than not having a “Y” chromosome upon this landscape. Partly because you’re a vulnerable target, but also because you’re alone. It’s not uncommon for a woman to just shoot herself or throw herself into a river than try to struggle through a seemingly never ending tribulation.

This is what shapes this basic idea of a story. Banding together and remaining as inconspicuous as possible is the only way for a woman to survive out here (with decency). Augusta, Louise and Mads work a small country farm together to survive. They hunt, they fish and they try their best to stay away from everyone. Keep to themselves, keep quiet and keep alive. Circumstances force Augusta the neighbor’s and then into “town” in search of medicine. What follows her back home is a menace that will keep the girls struggling for their lives for the rest of the picture. It becomes “Straw Dogs with muskets” as one critic wrote.

So of course gender politics are somewhat shattered in this story but perhaps even more interesting is the racial equality hinted at. “We all niggers now,” mumbles our protagonist, Augusta. The American South of the late 19th century seems like the least likely place and time for a black woman to be taking up arms and fighting alongside the whites. This twilight zone allows a black woman to slap a white woman and not only get away with it, but make the white woman realize that she deserved it. In short, the world put on screen is a fascinating concept and everyone is in equal danger.

While the ideas and concepts in The Keeping Room are unique and at times exciting and thought provoking, not everything clicks along perfectly. Some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and/or corny. The cinematography is certainly competent and watchable, but not as gorgeous or interesting as most films within the western genre – it feels a little flat. Even the more suspenseful moments start to drag a bit and the film does rely on jump scares a few times too often; and needlessly. Perhaps a more experienced director would have been able to coax out some more atmosphere and earned tension. Still, this is quality output for a sophomore effort director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown).

Brit Marling, Hailee Steifeld and (surprisingly) Sam Worthington give it all they’ve got and manage to make quite a believable atmosphere with some very exciting and heartfelt, dramatic moments. The standout here though, is Muna Otaru. Her delivery of everything from sadness to anger to pity to fear to vengefulness to indifference to disbelief is as tonally consistent and inspiring as it gets. Here is an actress I think we’ll be keeping an eye on in the near future to be doing great and bigger things.

So while the movie isn’t always percolating at full drip, it is producing more than it isn’t. The concept alone is worth the price of admission and if you’re someone like me who wants a western laden in genre, but with true heart and emotion from its principal players, I can’t think of too many films this year that will scratch that itch. Part seige picture, part war, part feminist and all heart, The Keeping Room stands alone in its uniqueness and its ambition in 2015.