'The Keeping Room': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Lots of flavorful ingredients in an unsatisfying stew

Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld play Southern sisters fending for themselves in the violent twilight of the Civil War

The title sounds like a grim horror movie, but The Keeping Room is actually a revisionist siege Western, examined from an atypical female point of view. Centered by a haunted yet tough performance from Brit Marling, the film comes from a screenplay by Julia Hart that got the Black List endorsement as one of the best unproduced scripts of 2012, and its setting and distinctive Americana twist alone make it of interest. But what might have looked intriguing on paper appears to have been largely pared away in the artsy mannerisms and loaded silences of Brit director Daniel Barber’s self-consciously elliptical treatment.

Set in 1865 in rural South Carolina at the waning end of the Civil War, the movie is larded with brutality toward women, almost to numbing extremes. That comes courtesy of two ragged Yankee scouts out front of Sherman’s March to the Sea, whose raping and killing spree sparks revolt and retaliation with the distinct whiff of a women's studies paper.

Barber opens with a visceral jolt as the Yankees, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), violate and mow down a white woman and kill two slaves, torching the wagon that carried them. Accompanied by their vicious Doberman, the renegade soldiers loot a trail of farms, stores and backwoods saloons, guzzling as much moonshine as they can find. The mystery figure of a black Union soldier on horseback (Nicholas Pinnock) is also glimpsed throughout, destined to converge with ill timing on the same isolated farm as the white Yankees.

That farm is home to sisters Augusta (Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their young family slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). With the siblings’ mother deceased, and the men of the family and farmhands all gone off to war and presumed dead, the three women have had to learn to fend for themselves. And while petulant Louise freely airs her resentment, the mistress-servant divide has largely dissolved. They sleep together behind the barred door of the same room, vigilant for signs of intruders.

Augusta has become the stoical head of the household to whom the others look for security. But when teenage Louise gets injured and becomes ill, her protective older sister is forced to ride to a nearby town to look for medicine. While Augusta’s self-possession gets her out of a perilous situation, she has caught the eye of the murderous Yankees, Moses in particular, drawing them back to the farm. The inevitable showdown ain’t pretty.

There are the rudiments of a gripping tale here, about women rejecting the passive roles traditionally assigned to them, along with the injustices visited upon them, taking charge of their own safety, dignity and destiny. And there’s no shortage of atmosphere in cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s images of the starkly beautiful locations and the lonely farmhouse. These are evocatively complemented by an unconventional Southern-flavored score with plaintive, wordless vocals, composed by London musician Martin Phipps through his soundtrack project, Mearl.

But Barber, who previously made the Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown, can’t get out of his own way long enough to tell the story. Instead we get the same note of drawn-out dread played to the point where it switches from ominous to tedious, dulling the suspense, with the occasional mumbled line or two providing minimal insight into the characters. Then Hart’s screenplay blunders in with Big Speeches, notably one that comes out of nowhere in which the previously reticent Mad pipes up during the stunned aftermath of violence to share her personal experience of the monstrousness of men.

It’s all so studied that what should be a wrenching account of one young woman’s personal horror, symbolizing that of many, just points to the hand of the writer hard at work. When the battle-scarred farm holdouts bear arms and turn aggressors, Hart doesn’t trust the audience to read the women’s actions for themselves. Instead, she imposes blunt subtext signifiers on them, like “What if we was men instead of women?”

The cast is not the problem here. Soller and Worthington both convey the idea of men hollowed out by the cruelty of war; Henry is a dangerous fool and Moses a hardened man whose buried hunger for love gives him a possible sliver of redemption. Steinfeld, so wonderful in the Coen Brothers’ fine Western remake True Grit, is mostly confined to pouting or whimpering, while newcomer Otaru manages to sketch a backstory despite having most of it relegated to the one monologue.

But the most compelling presence is Marling, who brings her idiosyncratic expressivity and economy of means to Augusta, a woman forced to grow up fast but aware of the experiences she has skipped along the way. With their wild tangle of tresses, their tattered sack dresses and breeches, these women and the slave rendered a hesitant third sister by war make striking heroines. But they deserve a movie that tells their tale of defiant resilience with less fuss and more narrative drive.

Production companies: Winddancer Films, Gilbert Films, Anonymous Content Production
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall
Director: Daniel Barber
Screenwriter: Julia Hart
Producers: Jordan Horowitz, Judd Payne, Matt Williams, David McFadzean, Dete Meserve, Patrick Newall
Executive producers: Gary Gilbert, Michael Sugar
Director of photography: Martin Ruhe
Production designer: Caroline Hanania
Costume designer: Luminita Lungu
Music: Mearl
Editor: Alex Rodriguez

Sales: WME, Sierra/Affinity

No MPAA rating, 94 minutes