‘The Keeping Room’
Director:
Daniel Barber
Stars: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“The Keeping Room” is a feminist Western, but it’s no mere revisionist history. It doesn’t force its modern politics upon a genre that, for the most part, has no interest in it, and nor does it indulge in mere anachronisms. It argues, in the form of a modest, indie-by-way-of-b-movie-thriller, that feminism (and racial tolerance) is a natural outgrowth of the survival instinct. Properly pushed, any woman — or anyone, for the matter — would find their inner strength, as well as recognize the humanity in others. 

And the women in “The Keeping Room” are properly pushed. Augusta (Brit Marling) and her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) live in a remote house, along with their slave Mad (Muna Otaru), somewhere in, as the opening reads, “The American South.” It’s the waning days of the Civil War and the men of the house are either dead or off fighting, perhaps never to return. They attract the attention of a pair of feral Union deserters (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller), who mean to take their home, and them, by force. What starts as a quiet but vaguely tense look at the toughness of life at the time — filled with dirt and grime and farming blunders and bad food — eventually twists into a full-on home invasion thriller.

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But it’s one that stays realistic. Louise winds up incapacitated by a raccoon bite, leaving Augusta to wield a shotgun and, soon, Mad to locate her inner fighter as well, all while forming a tighter bond with those who, as the film begins, are casually dropping the n-word. But they don’t turn into badasses. This isn't a movie where women become strong by pretending to be men. They’re normal people forced by circumstance to meet their perpetrators blow by blow. Soller plays the bad cop — the psycho who cackles as he punches women and snarls at a shaking Augusta. There’s actually not a good cop among the pair, but Worthington’s Moses is the one who almost seems like he might, maybe, probably not, be the one shoring stray pockets of decency. War has eroded them both, but Moses occupies a shaky, exciting ground: hesitant and gentle one moment, only to reveal with his next act that he’s just as dangerous. Worthington can often be blank, but here he uses his stolidity to throw our heroes, and viewers, off.

Worthington still can’t come close to upstaging the leads. Marling’s performance is largely a physical one, all sweaty unease and, when brandishing arms, a mix of menace and terror. Augusta doesn’t like talking, nor does anyone else. And yet wordless stretches eventually give way to group storytelling, the women letting the pace stop so they can comfort each other with anecdotes over drinks or simply during downtime. This is how “The Keeping Room” distinguishes itself as both a distinctly feminine thriller and as a thriller with more time for deeper exploration. Augusta and Louise’s acceptance of Mad comes naturally and without earth-quaking speeches. Of course, given the fire brought down upon them, even Confederate women would come to see Mad as one of them, and of course they’d come to see their inferiority to the menfolk as a social wrong. It’s a political film without making a meal of it, and without needing to explain itself in words. It’s a true action film, not action in terms of genre thrills but in terms of showing, not telling, all while delivering the goods.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge