I feel like two words that will consistently be brought up when discussing The Keeping Room are these particular ones: fascinating and frustrating. The film is full of intrigue but done in such a way that it all but fully keeps you at arm’s length. That distance on a constant basis ultimately keeps me from fully embracing it as an offbeat genre outing with something fairly serious on its mind. Director Daniel Barber does give actresses Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld a decent enough initial platform to showcase their ample talents, but it’s in the service of movie that’s ever so slightly just not up to snuff. The Keeping Room ties you up in knots like that, and it gets on your nerves a bit. The set up is effective and the look of the flick has a lot going for it, but the way that the story is told just isn’t satisfying. It’s never a big enough struggle that you feel this is a waste of time, but by the same token it’s just not without enough benefits to warrant a recommendation from yours truly. Essentially, I do think it’s more or less worth watching, but I simply can’t go the extra little bit of a thumbs up, as it were. The Keeping Room is better than an interesting failure, but it’s not a success either, so it’s stuck in a sort of purgatory, somewhere in-between.
Things begin with a fair amount of promise, particularly in how the protagonists and antagonists have affiliations you wouldn’t expect.. The film is set in the South during the final days of the Civil War, when America was torn apart and most men were still on the battlefield, if not dead. That leaves women on the home front, especially in the south, where this takes place. Sisters Augusta (Marling) and Louisa (Steinfeld) are tending to their homestead, along with slave Mad (Muna Otaru), who they treat essentially as equals. We also see vicious North soldiers Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) violently making their way across the country. Obviously, the two groups will cross paths, with the reason being a trip by Augusta for medicine after Louisa suffers an animal bite. Moses is fond of the woman, but she escapes, though the men aren’t far behind her. That sets up a stand off of sorts, one that doesn’t quite go how you expect it to. Like I said, the premise isn’t bad at all. It’s just the execution that winds up leaving something to be desired.
Any movie that has a cast led by Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld is going to have my attention, so The Keeping Room begins with that distinct advantage. Marling is the lead here and while not overtly playing an action heroine, she shows chops for something of that ilk. She’s a talented actress and more than up to the task, though you do sometimes feel like she’s a bit too good for the material. Steinfeld isn’t quite given as much to do, but she acquits herself nicely and makes the most of what she’s given. As she gets older, her choices for roles become more and more interesting, so keep an eye on where she goes from here. Neither do their best work to date, but neither do their worst either. Sam Worthington is solid yet unremarkable, while Kyle Soller and Muna Otaru don’t leave particularly strong marks, at least for me. Also in the cast are the likes of Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, and more, but they’re nothing of note. Marling fares the best of the bunch, in case you’re keeping score.
As a director, Daniel Barber gets a little too cute here, create a slightly abrasive style that doesn’t fit the script by Julia Hart. Barber makes The Keeping Room visual, for sure, but he also makes it a touch too sparse as well. His prior flick Harry Brown did a better job of taking an intriguing yet simple screenplay and elevating it with his filmmaking. Here, he actually hurts Hart’s work. It’s not a hack job or anything like that, but it’s perhaps overly ambitious. Like I said, he fascinates here, but he frustrates as well, with the latter emotion winning out over the former.
When push comes to shove, The Keeping Room isn’t a bad film at all, but it’s still kind of a misfire overall. If you’re a follower of Marling or someone in the cast, that could get you to sit down and watch the work, but I doubt it will fully satisfy you. This could become a cult favorite down the road, but mostly it functions as a reminder that Barber is a director with lots of talent that hasn’t put it all together yet. When he does…watch out. Until then though, we have mixed bags like The Keeping Room to contend with.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!