The Keeping Room takes a potentially tense and gripping, albeit familiar story and diffuses it through a too-studied artfulness. Here’s yet another genre film that belongs to a post-mumblecore influenced style one could dub “slowcore”: studiously avoiding spectacle in favor of ground-level characterization, with a visual style pulled wholesale from the back catalogue of Terrence Mallick. At best, these are films could be described as dreamy and thoughtful takes on normally lurid B-movie material. At worse, they are plodding, dull, even tedious. The Keeping Room, well-crafted as it is, falls on the wrong side of the divide.
Described as a “feminist Western” that takes a sharp left turn into home invasion mechanics, Daniel Barber’s drama is set at the tail end of the Civil War, on a remote farm occupied by three women: the determined and grit-teethed Augusta (Brit Marling), her spoiled teen sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), who has been elevated to something of an equal in Augusta’s eyes after the men of the farm left for the war, presumably still fighting if not outright dead. Into this environmet comes a pair of vicious Union soldiers, Moses (Sam Worthington, doing surprisingly decent work compared to his wooden heroics in films like Avatar and Clash of the Titans) and Henry (Kyle Soller), intent on violating their way through the South head of the army encroaching behind them. After a confrontation in town, Moses takes a shine to Augusta, and the cruel men lay siege to the farm, with the women fighting back to protect what is theirs.
The Keeping Room is beautifully shot, with lovely, picturesque of the Southern countryside, and the actors are terrific, imbuing their characters with shades of depth and humanity — even Worthington, who is mostly stolid, gives a layered performance. (The one actor left out to dry is Stoller, who isn’t bad, but is stuck with a one note character — albeit a note he hits well.) The problem is that there isn’t enough story to support the film’s humorless, clenched tone. The best scenes happen when Barber lets down his guard and embraces his more disreputable side, sequences of sudden violence (such as an attention getting opening) or delivering a fair degree of suspense once the Union soldiers invade. But it takes far too long to get there, with much of the film’s first half dedicated to the cast grimly mumbling dialogue while working the farm or going into town for supplies. One could almost make a drinking game out of every cut to a dour-faced close up of an actor, and the film quickly starts to drag because of it.
Even when the film begins to pick up steam, Barber and writer Julia Hart often stop the action to have characters indulge in long, rambling, pace-stopping monologues. This is where The Keeping Room tries to earn its feminist credentials, but giving its thinly written characters out of place, ham-fisted speeches after a scene of attempted rape — a trite, lazy, over-used way to place a female character in jeopardy– is hardly a way of developing of strong female characters. Ultimately, The Keeping Room is little more than an exploitation movie that thinks it’s a serious drama. Slow to start, torpid, only fitfully engaging and petering out to a weak and whimpery finale, its a mixed bag of good intentions, technical craft and pretentious storytelling.