“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” – General William Tecumseh Sherman
There’s a feeling of dread that permeates virtually every scene in The Keeping Room, a revisionist western that would dovetail nicely with a viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Both movies take place around the Civil War, and both of them examine the toll that war took on personal relationships.
In The Hateful Eight, which takes place just after the North has won, Tarantino uses all of his pulpy, button-pushing dialogue to keep the suspense ratcheted up in the closed quarters of a snowed-in cabin. His ace card is the race card, which slowly becomes the chief concern as the true colors of a room full of murderers comes out. The only black man in the room (Samuel L. Jackson) is several steps ahead of everyone else the whole time, because he has to be.
The Keeping Room, on Blu-ray now from Drafthouse Films, is set in 1865 during the waning years of the conflict, and its set on a deserted Southern plantation. A slave named Mad (Muna Otaru) is stranded in the empty house with two other young women, Augusta (Brit Marling) and her younger sister, Louise (Hailee Steinfeld). Mother died years ago, and their father and older brother are off fighting for the Confederate Army.
Like Tarantino’s film, race is certainly a concern here. The power structure between the three has fundamentally changed. Louise can no longer play the innocent girl. She’s resentful that she has to do the same work as Mad. So is Augusta, but she’s also aware of the responsibility she bears as the eldest.
Since the movie opens with two mysterious strangers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) committing a senseless rape and multiple murders, it is apparent that The Keeping Room will be dealing with these ideas further down the road. The quietude of the early section is all the more disturbing because we know it will not last.
When the foreshadowed clash finally happens, there’s still some subtle character building happening. Mad’s true history comes to light and relationships are tested once again.
On some level, the shocking violence and sadism seems gratuitous, but upon reflection, it strengthens the themes of the film. Screenwriter Julia Hart has constructed a lean story with some unlikely poignancy, while director Daniel Barber squeezes the most suspense out of it possible. There’s not a lot of twists and turns; it’s just one sustained mood of dread and and ending that makes puts the entire thing into a wider, scarier perspective:
It may not be based on a true story, but it seems very likely that similar stories probably played themselves out in this very fashion towards the end of the Civil War.
The Blu-ray has an excellent, informative commentary track with Marling and Hart, as well as an 11-minute making-of featurette that’s a little disappointing. It’s pretty standard press material where the actors basically explain the set-up of the movie.