Editor’s Note: The Keeping Room opens in limited release September 25.
A staple of the western genre is its beauteous and sweeping vistas. Long shots of the desert, John Wayne staring into the distance, rolling hills, glorious sunsets, all arguments for westerns to be shot on the larger 70mm, something that Quentin Tarantino intends to do fully with his upcoming The Hateful Eight. But The Keeping Room isn’t like most westerns. Outside of a couple shots at its close, it is a film much more concerned with finding the tension in tight quarters.
In The Keeping Room’s very premise it is as if it is looking at the pantheon of westerns and shaking its head in annoyed confusion as it mutters, “what about the women?” Often women were relegated to damsels in distress, or whores, or maybe if they were lucky some plucky love interest that comes bearing a level of sass deemed appropriate by the quality of her looks. The western was a man’s game and women were there for decoration. But The Keeping Room sees it differently. Women lived in these times and were forced into just as many situations of hardship and toughery (no, it’s not a word, relax) requiring more than enough heroism and general badassery (stop Googling the words I use). It’s time to let them play in the sandbox.
The tired exposition is largely tossed out the window replaced by authentic character motivations that we must suss out as the film progresses.
Director Daniel Barber, with a script from Julia Hart, brings an interesting touch to this world. Much like his ode to old school Michael Caine toughness in Harry Brown, his film is not propelled by plot contrivances but rather by the characters populating the world. The tired exposition is largely tossed out the window replaced by authentic character motivations that we must suss out as the film progresses. There are mysteries that remain just that because their importance to the film is minimal. We come to understand motivations by what we see and the few words we hear. It makes for a much more immersive experience where emotions are heightened and the smallest movement has the viewer in tense anticipation.
While the blunt violence on display does remind of a western of the Sam Peckinpah variety, it has much more in common with Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs than it does The Wild Bunch. In fact, much of the film plays as something of a slasher flick, with Sam Worthington’s dark Moses moving about with the cold and calm of Michael Myers, only chattier. The horror trappings work, as night falls and many of the candles go unlit, the crumbling southern mansion transforms into a house of horrors, where death lingers in the shadows and you end up cowering helpless in the corner.
Speaking of Sam Worthington, the actor may have just found something that actually works for him. The stars of the film are easily Brit Marling and Muna Otaru who make for impressive pillars of strength that to label feminine feels unnecessary. While, Hailee Steinfeld goes largely unutilized, Marling and Otaru are able to exude a resolve necessary for survival in a time before indoor plumbing. Meanwhile, Worthington who has largely been a dud in bigger Hollywood fare, ends up owning this role of villain. He is the type of antagonist that is so smoothly heartless that you actually find yourself wanting to hear what he has to say. If this film is any indication, it’s time for Worthington to step away from the leading man game and embrace the odd and dirty character roles. This is Worthington on a level unlike any you’ve seen him at before.
The quiet and gentle build may turn some off, but it makes the third act standoff all the more riveting.
With The Keeping Room, I couldn’t help but think of John Maclean’s Slow West, which released earlier this year, as the two films share a sensibility, especially in terms of their view and understanding of the western genre. The cowboy may not reign supreme as he once did, but there are still plenty of stories to be told in this world, and 2015 is making for one great year of westerns.
The elements of the film that don’t entirely work, which are mostly any bits not taking place on the plantation itself, go forgotten as the credits roll. For long stretches the film is exceedingly quiet, made up of small moments between family members with a long and troubled past. The quiet and gentle build may turn some off, but it makes the third act standoff all the more riveting. Julia Hart’s screenplay is a lean one, but written elegantly in all of the right places with Daniel Barber’s direction coming in to translate that tension to screen wonderfully. The Keeping Room exists as this marriage of genres, part western, part horror, and completely enthralling.
The Keeping Room exists as this marriage of genres, part western, part horror, and completely enthralling.