One doesn’t generally come across a whole lot of female-oriented westerns, unfortunately, and even we do it’s probably something broad and obvious like Bad Girls (1994). Occasionally we’ll get something unexpectedly powerful like The Homesman (2014), but for the most part, the western is a particularly male-oriented genre. And that’s sort of what makes Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room such a cool, satisfying surprise.
The Keeping Room is a simple but densely-layered story about three very different women who share an isolated farmhouse. The year is 1865; the Civil War has just drawn to a close, and the American plains are now a lawless purgatory in which life is hard, men are scarce, women are resourceful, and crime runs rampant. Augusta (Brit Marling) farms her dying land with help from her loyal friend (and former slave) Mad (Muna Otaru) and her petulant little sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), but it quickly becomes clear these women are struggling through post-war devastation of the most dire variety. They barely generate enough food to eat; they don’t seem to have many happy prospects on the horizon, and their community seems to be one short step away from becoming an abandoned wasteland.
And then Louise gets bitten by a raccoon, which sends Augusta off to town in search of some medicine. That’s when she comes across two union soldiers; gruff, brutal, terrible soldiers who seem less like human men and more like the horrific harbingers of things to come. Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) are not mere troublemakers out for a good time. In fact, they’re scouts for the Union Army, and their job is to chart a path for a “scorched earth” campaign across the South Carolina farmlands. And unfortunately for Augusta, it seems that she showed up at the decrepit local saloon on the wrong day. She manages to avoid the aggressors’ advances, but bullies rarely give up so easily: it doesn’t take long before Moses and Henry have located Augusta’s hidden homestead.
What sounds like a basic siege story (albeit one in which females take center stage) is actually quite a bit more insightful, sobering, and melancholy than what one normally finds in a western. First-time screenwriter Julia Hart has a lot to say about the role of women during a particularly (not to mention depressingly) masculine segment of American history, and while The Keeping Room is a deliberately paced and relatively slow-moving story, it’s certainly never boring.
The three leads are nothing short of fantastic, although it’s Brit Marling who takes front and center for much of the film — and damn if she hasn’t become one of the most reliable young actresses of the past ten years. Additional (and enthusiastic) praise is due to cinematographer Martin Ruhe, who brings a tragic historical era to life with stunning beauty, and to composer Martin Phipps, who provides an eclectic, effective, and unconventionally memorable musical score.
The Keeping Room is probably worth seeing solely because it’s not the sort of western we see all that much of — but then it goes on to deliver three stellar performances, a slyly insightful screenplay, and all sorts of impressive assets in the departments of music, cinematography, and production design. If that’s not enough to warrant a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.
4 out of 5 burritos