“The Keeping Room” is a self-consciously gritty and minimalist female empowerment thriller that could have just been three pretty actresses getting down and Scarlett O’Hara dirty in the waning days of the Civil War.
But those three players transcend this picture’s arty trappings and deliver a taut (somewhat) and violent period piece not afraid to punch the viewer in the gut.
In South Carolina, in the last months of the war, Augusta (Brit Marling), her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) and their maid Mad (Muna Otaru of “Lions for Lambs”) struggle to eek out subsistence on the farm. The land has been emptied of healthy men, and women are starving or worse all around them. The isolation means they have no one to turn to for help. The lack of news makes them wonder how far beyond the horizon their horror extends.
“What if it’s the end of the world, and we’re the last one’s left?”
Louise is young and somewhat simple. Mad has an inkling that the old order has overturned. And even if it hasn’t, in this desperate situation, the mistress-slave relationship is finished.
Every man is a threat, especially the two murderous Yankee deserters (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) we’ve met in the opening scenes. Anarchy has set in, and when they get wind of these women and their plight, the worst is on its way.
“It’s our home,” Augusta drawls, knowing that “We” means her, and with luck, Mad. “We gon’ have to fight.”
For a story politically out-of-step in post-Confederate Flag America, “Keeping Room” is surprisingly affecting.
Marling’s runway-ready beauty is rawboned here, and she gets across an impressively hard-won competence as Augusta. She may have had her “Fiddle dee dee” years, but the war has forced her to take on every job a man had to do there. Marling (“The East”, “Arbitrage”) is becoming a brand-name that you look for in the credits of any indie drama you hope might be worth watching.
Steinfeld’s Louise is also a “type,” but Otaru’s Mad is harder to read — a woman whose loyalty is being tested daily, who may be wondering if she has any choice about staying or fleeing.
Director Daniel Barber, who made the similarly lean and mean “Harry Brown” with Michael Caine, stages the confrontation with the marauders with blood, and without much pity. Worthington suggests menace with a hint of humanity, but Soller is pure brown-teeth evil playing a man war has turned into a murderous opportunist, without compassionate cell in his body.
The “Survivor” elements which drive the middle of the film — the mundane tasks that women with little livestock and little experience in farming must accomplish to feed themselves — drag a bit. But the finale Barber and actress-turned-screenwriter Julia Hart deliver is righteously, remorselessly satisfying.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including a sexual assault
Cast: Brit Marling, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Hailee Steinfeld,
Credits: Directed by Daniel Barber, script by Julia Hart.
A Drafthouse release.
Running time: 1:35