“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueller it is, the sooner it will be over.” So begins 1800s-set thriller The Keeping Room; these sobering words quoted with proud insistence against black, and attributed to Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, the American Civil War “legend” whose scorched-earth brand of warfare is indirectly responsible for the atrocities committed in this movie. Funnily, Sherman also spouted the now cliché line “war is hell”, which may be a more fitting preface for a film whose attempts at subversion are expressive but sadly over-familiar.
Set in 1865 as the Union Army, led by the aforementioned Sherman, storms Confederate territory on its southward march to victory, The Keeping Room centres on a trio of Southern women who go about their daily grind, awaiting the scourge they know fast approaches on horse and foot. Nursing the dim hope that their warring father and brothers will one day return, Augusta (Brit Marling, star of Sound of My Voice and Another Earth) and her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit fame) struggle to maintain their decaying homestead, hunting, harvesting and brooding while newly emancipated Mad (Muna Otaru) dutifully hoes, cleans and cooks. Theirs is a post-apocalyptic existence; a reality explicitly entertained by Augusta when she wonders aloud “what if it’s the end of the world and we’re the last ones left?” Accordingly, the three leads lace their mumbled Southern drawls and overall performances with fatigue and downright dread, an approach which seems admirably naturalistic before it begins to exude the oppressive stench of overly studied understatement. Either way, said Unionist scourge eventually manifests as a pair of rogue soldiers indulging in rape and murder, who, after encountering Augusta at a godforsaken saloon, trail her and proceed to invade the women’s home, in a protracted showdown that neither horrifies nor quickens the pulse.
To tackle the obvious, anyone hesitant to compare this premise with that of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or George A. Romero’s zombie jewel Night of the Living Dead can rest assured that screenwriter Julia Hart has acknowledged these influences, and that the throughlines are deliciously clear. But while all three films indulge the primal thrill of watching a group of protagonists fend off blood-thirsty assailants in an isolated location, The Keeping Room sidesteps the almost pessimistic implications of its cinematic mentors in favour of a reserved but hopeful phoenix philosophy: a fairer future emerging from a wretched, combusting present. Yes, agency and equality eventually prevail, though this may or may not prove depressingly ironic when such ideals feel like asymptotic fantasies, even in 2016.
If Straw Dogs suggests that men, even Dustin Hoffman at his meekest, are cursed with an irrepressible penchant for domination through violence, Hart and her script do not necessarily disagree, though the rifle-toting Augusta — like generations of self-possessed female characters before her — defies antiquated ideas of women being too delicate to purposefully dish out and receive physical punishment. And if the two army strays, Moses (a passable Sam Worthington) and Kyle Soller’s overly villainous Henry, are figurative living dead by way of their mindless thirst for stolen sex and blood, to what extent is their malevolence a consequence of their Y-chromosomes, as opposed to their militarisation or societal privilege? It’s in this broad manner that Hart riffs on older material to craft a contemporary response to the two-headed fiend that is perverted masculinity and rampant warfare. One can add explorations of racial dynamics to this, which, in all earnestness, feel far fresher in Night of the Living Dead or even John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 than in this, which sadly turns the character of Mad into a Wise Orating Negro who has been somehow ennobled by way of subjugation and rape; in other words, another unnecessary trope that feels positively ancient in the face of far older films.
First and foremost though, The Keeping Room feels conceived (and marketed) as a work of feminist revisionism in the vein of Kelly Reichardt’s towering Meek’s Cutoff, which swings the camera away from the male experience in traditionally sausage-heavy historical narratives. If the primary goal of the film is to redirect cinematic focus and re-contextualise the past, mission accomplished. Otherwise, as a contributor to a deeper gender discourse, this picture has precious little to say that is novel or nuanced, considering that progressive depictions of defiant femininity stretch back as far as, say, Marlene Dietrich’s role in Morocco (1930), if not further. It’s all doubly disappointing when the most radical aspect of the film is its portrayal of Unionists as villains, a role which has been more often reserved for the slave-loving Confederacy. The implication seems to be that there is no ‘good side’ in war; only those who pillage and kill with impunity, and those who pillage and kill before being killed — hardly a trailblazing assertion, though the equating of war and rape will never quite lose its bite.
Still, it’s probably the lingering sense of subversion that proved so exciting on paper, propelling Hart’s screenplay close to the top of the 2012 edition of the Black List. Yet, not having read Hart’s words, one can only imagine what else it was that captivated readers because, in the hands of English director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown), The Keeping Room is narratively scrawny in a way that is more starved than sculpted; the dialogue delivered with an overly contemporary caginess, occasionally unleashed in half-whispered anecdotes that may as well be subtitled “character development.” Completing an unfortunate trifecta, Barber adopts a visual tactic that is fast becoming omnipresent on the independent circuit: one which alternates between sun-dappled wistfulness and brutal, artless chiaroscuro as the camera subtly hovers in space, as if buoyed by the humming score. Of course, this aesthetic philosophy is not in itself invalid or unsuited to the subject at hand, but it is a choice which, in conjunction with other choices, creates a certain tediousness which prevents the film from even being fun revisionism on a surface level.