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Keeping Room, The

Cinedigm // R // February 2, 2016
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 17, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Keeping Room opens with a slightly surreal yet obviously meaningful image. A woman, walking along a road alone, encounters a hulking, ferocious dog in her path. The dog barks and growls, attempting to intimidate her, but the woman simply barks back. Sadly, standing her ground isn't enough. Moments later, disillusioned soldier Henry (Kyle Soller) emerges from a carriage parked further down the road, kills the fleeing female passenger, and then kills the woman standing in front of the dog. The film may be set in a relatively lawless time, near the end of the Civil War, but for women (and for black Americans -- both the woman who encounters the dog and the carriage driver are black), not much has changed since then: the threat of violence at the hands of men is everywhere.

Written by Julia Hart (one of the rare Black List entries to more or less live up to the hype), The Keeping Room is a feminist western, centered around the relationship between three women. Augusta (Brit Marling) has taken over as the head of her household after her father and brother left to join the war and didn't come back, looking after her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) with the help of the family slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). Although a basic structure of authority remains, especially when Louise puts up a fight against her responsibilities, the three women have shifted toward a more communal existence together, a tenuous relationship which is tested when Henry and his fellow soldier Mose (Sam Worthington) spot Augusta in town and follow her back to the farm.

Although Mose and Henry are introduced fairly early on, the bulk of the film explores the relationship that the three women have settled into together. All three do farmwork together, planting and harvesting, with Augusta occasionally taking a rifle out and attempting to hunt. They eat together, and sleep in the same room of the empty house together, with the door barred against intruders. The publicity and some of the press refers to the film as "post-apocalypstic", and the label fits: these women are lonely scavengers bonded together in the middle of a wasteland, with outsiders presenting a risk to what little they have. At one point, Augusta and Mad get drunk on moonshine and Augusta wonders aloud if they might be the three last people on Earth. It's an important scene, both in terms of the question speaking to the film's sparse atmosphere, and the focus on the women's relationship with each other (Augusta also questions Mad on what sex is like, lamenting that her role of responsibility prevents her from thinking about such things).

As women, Augusta, Louise, and Mad are surrounded by threats, at the mercy of a war machine that takes away presumably decent men like Augusta and Louise's father and brother, and spits out lawless menaces like Mose and Henry. Mad also has the added burden of living a horror story: her victimization as a woman is almost irrelevant compared to her victimization as a black person. Hart's screenplay isn't as nuanced in its attempts to tackle race as well as gender (Augusta's assertion that "we're all niggers now" is intended well but comes off deeply presumptuous, and there is always the question of whether Mad's wisdom serves the white leads more than it speaks to her own story), but the attempt to engage these subjects seems basically earnest, and it is a relief that a moment which sounds as if it's going to go in one disastrously offensive direction actually turns completely around to find emotional closure for Mad as well as Louise.

It would be both an assumption and a mistake to say that director Daniel Barber takes a backseat to Hart's screenplay, but his approach is reserved and subtle. There are no flashy tricks, nor an excess of ponderous observational shots to help set the stage. He centers the movie firmly on Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru's performances, all of whom are excellent, and captures enough authenticity for the viewer to fill in the rest of the details, to believe in the realities of their world because we believe in those characters. Gunfights are filmed with precision and clarity, and the film's visual appearance is subdued and streamlined but not muted. He even manages to get a strong (if relatively brief) performance out of Sam Worthington, who finds ways to make Mose sinister and oppressive without appearing less than friendly and basically decent on the surface. Like the women, Mose has become who he is through circumstance: his dark side is not necessarily a reflection of his true feelings, but a response to a world that asks only one thing of him.

The Blu-ray
The Keeping Room arrives in the same style as other Drafthouse Films releases: a transparent Blu-ray case (in this case, a standard Viva Elite), with more mainstream or commercial artwork facing out, and more artistic or stylized art on the reverse side. In this case, although the "commercial" art makes a bigger deal out of Worthington than it ought to by placing him on top, with Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru on the bottom, I prefer it to the "stylized" version, mostly because I'm not a fan of the orange-brown color scheme of the latter. There is also a leaflet that will score the owner a digital copy via Drafthouse's website, and a 12-page booklet with notes about the making of the movie.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 1080p AVC, The Keeping Room manages to strike the right balance between a natural-looking color scheme and a limited amount of desaturation, as if everything were covered in a fine layer of dust. Fine detail is excellent throughout, and there are no noticeable compression artifacts or other issues with the picture. A significant chunk of the film takes place in low light or dark settings, but no issues with banding intrude on the digital photography. Sound is a naturalistic but surprisingly rich DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack which takes the basic sounds of nature and the wilderness and uses them to great effect. As the characters live in an isolated, wooded area, there is quite a bit of ambient "silence" that provides an environmental atmosphere, which is then pierced by a sudden gunshot or scream. There is strong directional effect and subtlety in a scene where characters outside the house are yelling in, and the film's understated music is handled nicely. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
The main supplement is an audio commentary by actor Brit Marling and screenwriter Julia Hart. The two women clearly have a strong bond from production, where Hart was present the entire time, and they talk about their motivation in wanting to tell this story about these women, the challenges and advantages of shooting in Romania, rewriting on the fly, dealing with people's accents, sisterhood, and much more. The track is very warm and conversational, and worth a listen.

There is also a featurette, "The Making of The Keeping Room" (11:16). Although this provides a little B-roll and insight into the filming of a period piece, it's pretty standard EPK-style material, with interviews from the set.

An original theatrical trailer for The Keeping Room is also included, along with trailers for The Congress, The Connection, and Spring.

The Keeping Room is a unique entry into the western genre, which has been making a comeback recently in independent efforts like Slow West and Bone Tomahawk. The post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the film and Hart's strong authorial voice give the film a unique personality, and it is supported by a strong cast and simple but effective direction. Highly recommended.

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