In this radically reimagined American Western set towards the end of the Civil War, Southerner Augusta (Brit Marling) encounters two renegade, drunken soldiers who are on a mission of pillage and violence. After escaping an attempted assault, Augusta races back to the isolated farmhouse that she shares with her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their female slave Mad (Muna Otaru). When the pair of soldiers track Augusta down intent on exacting revenge, the trio of women are forced to take up arms to fend off their assailants, finding ways to resourcefully defend their home–and themselves–as the escalating attacks become more unpredictable and relentless.
Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room was a movie that I had heard a lot about before seeing it for the first time today. Since I am a massive fan of one of the lead actresses, Hailee Steinfeld, I have quite a few friends in her fanbase that I talk to on a regular basis. A lot of them have seen every single film of hers, but I haven’t yet. Regardless, all of my friends that have seen this film have said that it’s one of the darker films that Hailee has acted in thus far. I was told that it was quite different from anything she has ever done which definitely intrigued me a little bit.
Watching it, I can certainly confirm that this is one of the more bold Hailee-lead films. She is sometimes known for her roles as teenage characters in modern times, but in The Keeping Room, she doesn’t play the typical young girl character. Here, she portrays Louise, a young woman living during the days of the American Civil War with her sister Augusta. Together, they own a slave named Mad, and the three live out on their home.
It’s by far one of the more unlikable Hailee characters. In fact, it probably is Hailee’s most unlikeable character she has ever portrayed. She is quite vulgar and nasty towards Mad and doesn’t really treat her well. It was interesting to see Hailee capable of portraying somebody so different than what she is used to. Just like she is usually, she was the best actress in the whole film.
That being said though, all of the other actors do fantastic jobs as well. Brit Marling as Augusta was an incredibly strong lead as does Muna Otaru as Mad. The dynamic on-screen between the three of them was greatly entertaining to watch.
Aside from all of the great performances on display though, it’s also just a remarkably well-directed picture. Barber chooses to tell this story in a calm and quiet manner. In fact, for the longest time, we don’t hear anything come out of our lead characters’ mouths. We hear the wind of the outdoors brushing by leaves and trees, setting a dark and moody atmosphere that is never broken during the entire running time. But, Barber is also unafraid to have sudden loud outbursts when necessary. For example, one scene may be incredibly quiet and seemingly peaceful, when suddenly, a gunshot ruptures in your ear. It’s great stuff.
However, I can’t say that the whole movie’s sense of quiet was well warranted. There were numerous times where I kept asking myself “When is something going to happen?”. For about thirty minutes, it plays out almost like a day-in-the-life type of movie where we just get an inside look at what our lead characters do on a daily basis.
Gratefully though, the second act and third act do pick up speed quite a bit, ultimately building up to a finale that felt satisfying and rewarding. Is it slow-paced? Yes. Sadly, it’s to a fault. But Barber’s The Keeping Room is nevertheless a quiet and intense drama that manages to impress.
The Keeping Room is oftentimes too slowly-paced but is nevertheless a greatly intense and well-acted period drama directed excellently by Daniel Barber.
Overall Grade: B
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including a sexual assault
Directed by: Daniel Barber
Distributed by: Drafthouse Films, Lionsgate Films
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Running Time: 95 minutes