In history class, growing up, you learn a very clean, bloodless version of history. To a point, it makes sense; explaining the truest atrocities of man to a child of single-digit age is both a little cruel and a lot difficult. But time and fear sands off the more vicious edges of a great many things, particularly when it comes to America’s formative years. The Keeping Room is a film about Sherman’s March in a fashion, but it considers what it is to be on the losing side at the end of a war from a cruelly human point of view
The film you probably heard described as “the feminist Western” in passing if you happened to attend a festival sometime in the past year, The Keeping Room is more of a deliberately paced tone poem about loss, though both of those descriptors are at least partially valid. After her father and brother were called to fight for the South and never returned, and their mother left them through circumstances left unspoken, Augusta (Brit Marling) runs her family’s modest farm home. With her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and the family’s slave caretaker Mad (Muna Otaru), Augusta tends the farm, sets the table for dinner, and waits for whatever may come to arrive.
The uneasy delicacy of the film’s early scenes gives way to dread when a pair of apparent Union defectors (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) start sniffing around the nearby area, an accident leads to Louise taking ill, and the frail ecosystem preserving the remaining family from the brutality of the new, larger world begins to close in on them. The Keeping Room hails back to the innate terrors of an older world, a world where the coming of darkness covers all in shadow and a lone figure off in the distance constitutes an inevitable, impending evil. Even so much of the daylight captured is full of shadow and the impending setting of the sun.
The film is pointed about its deeper ideas, chiefly what it was and would be to be a woman, particularly a young and appealing woman, during that time. The Keeping Room takes great pains laboring over its wide panoramas of empty, long-deserted lands and the relative size of the women within them, which only adds to the escalating paranoia that its uniformly perfect performances manage. The jaw-set strength that’s always lived under even Marling’s more vulnerable performances is foregrounded here as she has to deny all but her most survivalist instincts, even in the quieter moments where she gets to wonder whether it might not have been nice to be a kept woman, in a different time.
The Keeping Room is quick (perhaps too quick), blunt, and brutal, showcasing the escalating horrors of true vulnerability with a grace and minimalism that exceeds the film’s modest-bordering-on-muted storytelling. To its credit, Julia Hart’s screenplay is most often interested in small notes (a suspicious glance at a bar, the errant firing of a rifle) and the social dynamics within the home than in the more melodramatic Western trappings; it’s telling that the film’s embraces of the Western mode land with less impact than the moments when it concentrates on the inherent sadism of trying to get by in a world like this one. And all of this when somewhere off in the distance, the sky is still burning all the while.