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Film Review: “The Keeping Room”

keepingThis film basically takes the incident from Gone With The Wind where Scarlett shoots a Union soldier and Melly helps her hide the body and fleshes it out into a full length film described as a revisionist Western, but it strikes me as more accurately characterized as a horror movie with a naturalistic, Civil War setting.

Two sisters, Augusta and Louise, and a female slave, Mad, struggle to survive at subsistence level on their Georgia farm during the menfolk’s absence, any forest game long ago hunted out, living off potato and carrot stew.

A full plate of misery turns into a veritable brimming cornucopia of woe and pain in the form of two bummers from Sherman’s army, sent ahead to reconnoiter supplies for advancing Union columns, but instead using the opportunity to engage in plunder, arson, and murder. The film’s opening scene introducing them is a tightly constructed, Grand Guignol pageant of horrid savagery that effectively frames both characters and the arc their nihilistic souls will follow. A sight of the attractive Augusta at a local tavern, on a desperate quest to find medicine for her raccoon bit sister, is enough to set the bummers after her. They arrive at night and a frantic siege of the farmhouse ensues, marked by rapidly escalating tension, violence, and rape. This part of the film reminded me of Straw Dogs where Dustin Hoffman fought off intruders, also while¬† besieged in a remote farmhouse.

Strong performances are given by everyone in the film, but particular credit goes to Brit Marling as Augusta, Sam Worthington as the head thug Moses, and especially Muna Otaru as Mad the family slave. Marling is convincing as an innately strong, beautiful young Southern woman, determined to preserve herself and her own no matter what, a true, brave lady as shown by her constant, selfless devotion and physical courage. Worthington is an interesting study of a villainous monster with sympathetic human flashes, confessing at one point he doesn’t know how to stop what he’s doing. The acting palm definitely goes to Otaru though with her portrayal of a young woman who’s experienced the absolute worst slavery has to offer, but still remains indomitable, dead game, ready to fight to the bitter end.

Although not didactic, this film faces some hard truths about American history, how the Civil War in general and Sherman’s March in particular were perfect settings for men to indulge in the very worst of human nature, becoming outright murderous psychopaths, the pure, steadily gnawing terror of women alone and near defenseless on an isolated farmstead, and the sheer, disgusting misery of slavery.¬† Yet even with all that heavy import, it’s still one hell of a horror movie with fast pacing, grotesque, disturbing imagery, and gritty, realistic violence.

This film isn’t for the squeamish. It also doesn’t seem to fit the Western genre. I recommend it to horror fans and Civil War buffs.

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