There are two ways that a film can deal with far-reaching political issues; it can either be weighty and self-righteous in tone or it can give credit to the audience’s intelligence and merely guide them along the way. The Keeping Room opts for the latter method and does so without diminishing the importance of its historical subject matter.
Set in the Deep South in the dying days of the American Civil War, the film follows three women (two orphaned sisters and an inherited black female slave) who find themselves fighting for their lives to defend their home against two ruthless Union Army soldiers.
The opening scene shows the two Union soldiers, played by Kyle Soller and Sam Worthington (who gives his best on screen performance yet) dispatch two innocent civilians in a cold and calculating manner. It’s a short, sharp shock of a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Essentially a fresh spin on the home invasion troupe, the film is often brutal and unflinching but somehow never gratuitous, choosing instead to expose the horrors of war by focussing on the psychological scars it inflicts. The only battle scene in the film is shown in a flashback-like nightmare of one of the sisters, in which she glimpses a corpse-strewn battlefield under an eerie purple shadow of light.
By concentrating on the intimacy of the relationship between the three women, we can feel the aftershock of the war rippling through every scene and it’s the handling of this relationship that is particularly impressive. The literal master/slave dynamic between the sisters and their black slave (played with an understated robustness by Muna Otaru) is never glossed over to appease sensitivities (the language of the time is used unapologetically and realistically frequent) and yet a believably genuine warmth between Otaru’s character and the elder sister (played by Another Earth’s striking Brit Marling) is achieved because of the intellectual (and at one point physical) clashes between them.
The cinematographer on the film is Martin Ruhe, who previously lent his skill to the critically acclaimed Joy Division biopic Control and he brings to this feature an otherworldly, almost heavenly atmosphere of peaceful stillness that contrasts effectively against the scenes of sudden violence.
Where the film really excels though is in the way it builds and sustains dramatic tension. The last act in particular is incredibly tense – almost unbearably so – and I found myself glued to the screen during every minute of it. Add this level of engagement to the film’s accomplished story-telling and characterization and you have a riveting, extremely watchable experience.
4.5 / 5
THE KEEPING ROOM is directed by Daniel Barber and stars Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru and Kyle Soller. It is now available on limited theaters.
Categories: Horror Movie Reviews