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Keeping Room, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Exciting, and smart enough to use its genre for good."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: "The Keeping Room" is a nicely-built little thriller that takes place during the American Civil War and which uses the details of that period so well in moving the action forward that some might miss what makes it genuinely clever: From the start, writer Julia Hart and director Daniel Barber do an impressive job of blurring the moral line between good people and the causes they are aligned with, creating a tension that can stick with the audience until well after the film finishes.

After a brief prologue that demonstrates what the film's heroines will be up against, the audience is introduced to the three women living on a small farm in the south: Augusta (Brit Marling), who is the head of the household with all the men off fighting; Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), her somewhat spoiled younger sister; and Mad (Muna Otaru), the family's only slave. They are just scraping by, but are probably better off remaining isolated - though the Union Army is not particularly nearby, the two soldiers sent to scout ahead (Sam Worthington & Kyle Soller) have either gone rogue or are simply using the situation to exercise their worst impulses.

Start with the surface: This is a nifty little thriller in part because Barber & Hart do an exceptional job of establishing just what a knife's edge the women are on from the very start, giving the film an air of desperation that means they actually could have skipped the prologue. From there, every thing that happens makes what Augusta and the others face more daunting, though never in a way that feels contrived or has the various pieces working against each other. Despite the smallish cast, the filmmakers still manage to find ways to pull off surprising (and lethal) escalations and reversals as the film goes on.

What makes it more interesting is what Hart & Barber seem to be doing underneath. They skip any sort of speech or direct highlighting that would spell it out, but one can't help but notice that there's a sort of peace to this almost-entirely female space until men show up; it's not a comfortable one even in terms of having food to eat and it's always possible that Augusta's treating Mad like an equal is as much pragmatic and enlightened, but in many ways it's an old story: The women at home manage while the men go to war and cause destruction. Perhaps more interesting than the male/female aspect, though, is how Northern officers besieging a Southern farm is likely a very conscious choice. The film doesn't ask the audience to consider the slave culture a positive thing - indeed, there are segments that make sure the audience remembers that it was a practice that really needed to be snuffed out - it quietly reminds viewers that soldiers are not necessarily a country's noblest people and the enemy's citizenry is not innately evil and deserving of what war brings. It's an idea that modern audiences could probably do with seeing more of, and placing it in this context makes it somewhat less strident.

One does kind of have to pull this out, although the cast communicates it fairly well. Brit Marling, for instance, is rock-solid in the center, presenting Augusta as pragmatic but also decent, and with a hint that, for as much as life is a struggle, not having to deal with men patronizing her or seeing her as someone to wed or bed was a bit of a relief, though that never comes out of her mouth. Muna Otaru's Mad has even more reason to feel that way, but she's in even less of a position to express it, which leaves Otaru to communicate a blend of resignation and strength even when she is not at the forefront - although she shines when that spot is given her. Steinfeld does well to make Louise a more typical girl of her environment without making her grating for a modern audience. It's perhaps a bit unfortunate that Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller don't have a little more to do in their roles - they don't quite become interchangeable villains, and are certainly effective enough when needed, but there's a sweet spot to representing both the worst in man and the other characters' personal nemeses that they don't quite hit.

They're good enough, though, that when dropped in the middle of Barber's very capable ability to make an atmospheric thriller and Hart's smarter-than-it-has-to-be script, the result is fairly strong. "The Keeping Room" becomes a darn good siege movie, and if it sneaks an idea or two in along with that, even better.

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originally posted: 05/17/15 08:36:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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1/07/16 Langano Girl power little house on the prairie style. 3 stars
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  25-Sep-2015 (R)
  DVD: 23-Feb-2016


  DVD: 23-Feb-2016

Directed by
  Daniel Barber

Written by
  Julia Hart

  Brit Marling
  Hailee Steinfeld
  Sam Worthington
  Muna Otaru
  Kyle Soller
  Amy Nuttall

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