Suspenseful and tedious in equal measure, The Keeping Room is not the badass feminist western I wanted it to be. Its central premise is compelling, but a ponderously slow build-up and a thematically confused ending ultimately undercut its effectiveness.
The Keeping Room
Director: Daniel Barber
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington
Set in South Carolina during the final days of the Civil War, Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld play Southern sisters who live on a farm with their female slave (Muna Otaru), left alone to tend to the crops and chores by their father and brother who went off to fight. They all sleep in the same room with the door barred to protect them, and the film's main strength is in making us feel how these women feel: that strange men are not to be trusted, and the threat of sexual assault and violence is a clear and present danger. (I imagine, sadly, that many women probably feel that way all day every day, even in 2015.)
It turns out their precautions are warranted, because two Yankee soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) eventually end up following Marling home, and the film morphs into a home invasion thriller with shades of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs as told from a female perspective. Steinfeld isn't given much to do here — Otaru has even less — so it's Marling that stands out as the film's MVP, such as it is. She's convincing as a tough, do-what-needs-to-be-done woman who rolls with the situation she's dealt, and Worthington and Soller are decent as the creepy, lustful men who will stop at nothing until they've had their conquest.
Director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) dials up the suspense and crafts a handful of exciting moments, but for the most part, our heroines act how you'd expect moronic characters in a horror film might, consistently making terrible decisions that inevitably come back to haunt them.
But it's the film's ending that really left me scratching my head. After spending the entire story glorifying, or at least endorsing, the women's actions and imbuing the film with an undercurrent of "girl power" mentality, the script's final pages counteract that messaging in a disappointing way. Spoilers ahead: the movie ends with the Union Army arriving on the farm, and the women decide to dress like men in order to escape. How long can they possibly get away with that charade? Not long, one would think, but the movie isn't interested in telling us — only to show how the individuality and femininity that they relied on thus far inexplicably needs to be suppressed in order to survive.* It's out of left field, and it's frustrating that the movie could have been a lot more effective had it simply ended a couple of minutes earlier. Link that with a strange and out of place attempt to recast Worthington's character in a somewhat sympathetic light, and we're left with the feeling that The Keeping Room faceplants and ungracefully rolls its way across a dusty finish line instead of ending with any sense of confidence in its storytelling.
*A possible alternate reading of the ending — that dressing as men completes a thematic transformation that's been happening throughout the film as the women embraced the same violence that left more than half a million men dead during the Civil War — still doesn't quite work for me, since that transformation isn't clearly defined over the course of the movie. It's a shame, too; this film had serious potential.