Great performances can't save this lackluster western from constant frustration.
The Keeping Room
The Keeping Room is the second feature-length film from Daniel Barber, director of the disappointing Harry Brown and Oscar-nominated short film The Tonto Woman. What’s frustrating is that, despite some glimpses of great work found in the film, we’re ultimately left with a disappointing experience similar to Barber’s previous efforts.
Taking place at the end of the Civil War, The Keeping Room starts out with a bang as two rogue Union soldiers and kill a group of women and a man unfortunate enough to cross their paths. But just as quickly as the film steps on the gas, it eases up as the story transitions to a small Southern family’s farm that only houses sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) along with their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). Any interesting dynamics or tension that could be expected from this situation are pretty much glossed over in the first half of the film, and largely go unexplored. Later, Augusta goes into town to get medicine for Louise and runs into the rogue soldiers Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) seen at the beginning. This triggers a cat-and-mouse game that continues throughout the rest of the film, as the three women attempt to survive the murderous Moses and Henry.
Guiding the film through a shaky first half are two great performances; Otaru with her endlessly expressive eyes, and Worthington’s menacing presence. And the rest of the cast turn in mostly admirable efforts. Brit Marling is solid in the lead role, but unfortunately her character is also the most uninteresting of the main cast. Hailee Steinfeld is strong at times but severely underwritten, and Kyle Soller does what he can with his thankless role.
Barber makes great use of space and locations, but his direction is a constant source of frustration. He consistently lets the film meander longer than needed, mishandling sequences that should be thrilling and intense. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe does solid work, bringing a cold sense of dread to the film that makes up for some of the unnecessary and ineffective handheld shots. The feminist leanings of Julia Hart’s screenplay are a welcome addition to this bloody western, but the story is overly simple to a fault and only gets interesting in the final minutes. And that’s the ultimate problem with the film; outside of a rambunctious opening and promising conclusion, it not only fails to engage but seems fairly uninterested in doing so.
While the acting helps the film stay afloat and some intriguing ideas are brought up (and then immediately dropped), the film has very little to offer and doesn’t even provide some of the B-Movie thrills that the equally disappointing Harry Brown managed to pull off. So while The Keeping Room isn’t the worst way to spend 90 minutes, there are certainly better ways to fill one’s time.