It’s not hard to see what they wanted to make with The Keeping Room, which is why it’s frustrating that they weren’t able to pull it off. It’s got the vibe of a twisted, dark indie thriller using the backdrop of the American Civil War to tell a tale of injustice, loneliness, brutality and the tenacity of the human spirit. The ingredients certainly pique one’s interest – a near silent opening scene establishes firmly the immoral behaviour of a couple Union soldiers. When a woman barks back at a truculent dog we have a sense of surrealism added as well. The reverie is shattered when we see her witness both rape and murder, and the vision of a immolated carriage hurtling aimlessly down a country road certainly bespeaks a fine metaphor for the South at that time.
From there the film keeps up some of its mystery, using a series of intercuts that at first prove puzzling. We soon piece together the dynamic of two sisters living alone with their slave, making a go at the farm that’s been abandoned by all the men who have gone off to fight. The gender dynamic is critical to the film’s more salient elements, along with the inexorable divide between owned and owner. “We’re all niggers now”, the eldest sister declares, digging in the dirt to try and garner sustenance from a land that itself seems in the process of losing its spirit just as the community around them is dying a slow death.
All this poetic setup soon leads, unfortunately, to a far more prosaic narrative that echoes less a Southern Gothic tale and more a banal 80s horror flick. As hard as the writer Julia Hart tries she can’t seem to get away from the fact that her protagonists make bad decision after bad decision, no less stupid than the actions of a bunch of teens in a cabin in the woods deciding to “split up” to see what that noise outside is.
It could have been that the tired, clichéd tropes could have taken on new life in this milieu, but unfortunately it plays as the opposite, as if all that wonderful setup is left to fester as the film goes along. There remain sparks – one of the final confrontations does bring up some pretty interesting moralizing – but even that is trumped by some predictable silliness.
Director Daniel Barber is probably best known for Harry Brown, that Michael Caine film from a few years back that also felt like it approached greatness and gave us some nice genre mashing up without quite having it all come together. Here we’ve got Brit Marling, Sam Worthington, Amy Nuttal and Ned Dennehy engaged in a roudtable of revenge. Hailee Steinfeld is underused the most here, and it’s her inevitable echoes to her stunning take in the Coen’s True Grit that truly underscores how far away from true greatness this film is.
The Keeping Room remains a fascinating if highly problematic film, one that contains seeds of greatness that fall upon fallow land. It’s hard to recommend to any but the most completist of Western fans, and with far better contemporary films (like The Salvation or Slow West) deserving of your time, you have plenty of other options to choose from.