Review: 'The Keeping Room' is a Powerful, Important War Movie
by Jeremy Kirk
September 25, 2015
I'm sure you've all heard this said before – Lord knows it's been said enough – but war truly is Hell. It's Hell for the people fighting it, Hell for the people who are swept up in it, and even Hell for the people who stay home and await their loved ones' return. During the American Civil War, those loved ones charging onto the battlefields didn't go that far, and the wives, children, and family they all left behind were forced to keep their homes safe from threats both domestic and… well, domestic. It's with this time, place, and situation in mind that director Daniel Barber brings us his new film The Keeping Room (playing Fantastic Fest), a powerful and terrifying drama about war and the people who are destroyed in its unquenchable wake.
Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld star in The Keeping Room as two sisters, Augusta and Louise, living in the South during the final days of the Civil War. Along with their former slave, Mad (played by Muva Otaru), they keep up the house while Augusta's husband fights the war raging on elsewhere in the country. Times are difficult, that's to be sure, but the three women find their home being threatened when a small group of Union soldiers who have broken off from the army to pillage their way through the countryside discover their farm.
Written by Julia Hart, the story establishes its characters early and well, sidestepping expectation in more ways than one. There's a deliberate momentum to her early scenes and definitely an intended attitude that sets the lead women up as much stronger and more progressive than women of that time typically depicted. These women are alone, and the strength they embody was not born out of a desire for equality but a necessity to survive. It's a story told far less often than it should be, but the women who fought the wars of history from the homefront faced their own brand of struggle.
Hart keeps that momentum all through the events that play out. From scene one the screenwriter keeps you on the edge of your seat, and the director keeps the pace focused with fantastic performances and incredibly grounded yet stunning imagery. As with Harry Brown, his previous directorial effort and a film you should all definitely seek out, Barber utilizes a visual style that holds your attention in even the quietest moment and a level of class in his action that isn't often seen in modern cinema. He holds back at the most appropriate times, and, when action does break out in his films, it is as stylish as it is hard-hitting. Also familiar from Harry Brown is Barber's ability to wrangle a helluva cast.
The trio of female leads is a collective force. Marling leads with an unquestionable stoutness, as capable in the action scenes as any male, action star of 2015. Steinfeld and Otaru also give sturdy performances throughout, while their counterpart, Sam Worthington as the leader of the rogue soldiers, plays quietly menacing with the best of them.
Flawless performances and a beautiful, visual style are enough to make any film worth seeing, but the heart of its story makes The Keeping Room a must-see for any fan of cinema. The "Hell on Earth" Barber and Hart have conceived is one of mental, emotional, and physical struggle alike, all the prerequisites for a top-notch war film. With equal parts tension and emotion, The Keeping Room may just be one of the most important war films to hit theaters in recent memory.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk