You haven’t seen a movie like this before. Even a wild label like “revisionist feminist postapocalyptic historical western home-invasion horror drama” doesn’t quite do it justice. The Keeping Room is a thrilling experience in how it defies categorization even as it pulls in bits and pieces from various genres in a way that shakes them all up, and in how it finds a fresh perspective on a scenario that is familiar in many of its aspects via the simple yet radical approach of telling its tale through the eyes of women.
This isn’t quite a western: we are not on the untamed frontier but, allegedly, smack in the middle of civilization in the American South. Except it’s 1865, the Civil War has ravaged the region, and Union troops are approaching. Steely Augusta (Brit Marling: The East, Arbitrage) and her petulant younger sister, Louise (Hailee Steinfeld: Barely Lethal, Ten Thousand Saints), and their slave servant Mad (Muna Otaru: Lions for Lambs, Rendition) have been on their own for a long time now, at the family’s remote farm, barely eking out a living from their little vegetable patch supplemented by small animals, when they can manage to shoot one. There is no sense in which this is not a postapocalyptic landscape, denuded of people and of culture; the women’s lives are desolate in every way, except for how they cling to one another. Augusta wonders, “What if it’s the end of the world and we’re the last ones left?” We feel it in our bones, just as the women surely do, that this is an entirely plausible worry.
And then things get worse: two Union soldiers — perhaps advance scouts, perhaps men gone AWOL — arrive in the vicinity: Moses (Sam Worthington: Everest, Sabotage) and Henry (Kyle Soller: Monsters: Dark Continent, Fury) are monsters. They are men who believe they are entitled to take whatever they want from women — from anyone, but especially from women. So now The Keeping Room becomes a nightmare of threatened and actual sexual assault, as the women barricade themselves in their once fine, now bare and miserable house and prepare to battle the men. But this is no cheap thriller that mines misogynistic suspense from that familiar horrid tease so many movies engage in: Will she or won’t she get raped? This is a movie about women who live in a world in which women always worry about and cope with such threats and such realities. (One terrible, riveting scene lays out the fact that what’s going on here isn’t about war, but about ordinary life for women, and how women survive it.) From Augusta’s first encounter with the men, she is in no doubt about what they are capable of. And her resolve to protect herself and her little family from them gives the film a potent, fierce urgency, yet one that is tinged with melancholy. Because while Moses and Henry may be brutes, they are not cartoons: they are real men upon whom war has also had a grim impact. The final startling image of the film is of this world on fire, a swarm of soldiers coming over the hills in the distance, looking like a zombie horde. Moses and Henry are but harbingers, perhaps, of terror to come.
The Keeping Room is an unexpected followup for director Daniel Barber, whose first feature was the Michael Caine vigilante vehicle Harry Brown. This is perhaps more in keeping with his Oscar-nominated short, “The Tonto Woman,” which also puts a feminist spin on tropes of the Old West. (I haven’t seen that, but I’m hoping to be able to find it now.) Working from the first script by screenwriter Julia Hart, he creates almost a new kind of horror film, one that doesn’t need to invent monsters when all too convincing ones actually exist, and are already quite familiar presences in women’s lives.