An intriguing premise never finds a dramatic pulse in “The Keeping Room,” a self-consciously artsy depiction of female grit during the final days of the Civil War.
Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and newcomer Muna Otaru play an unconventional family unit — two sisters and their slave — who have spent the war years fending for themselves on a Southern farm. An especially menacing threat arrives in the form of two Union Army scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) on a rampage of pillaging and worse.
Breaking down race- and class-bound rules as a matter of survival, the young women share meals and sleeping quarters and learn to use firearms to defend one another. Marling’s Augusta and Otaru’s Mad essentially become parents to Steinfeld’s Louise, a callow teenager torn brutally out of her sheltered view of the world.
Landing a few years ago on Hollywood’s Black List of admired but unproduced screenplays, Julia Hart’s historical thriller takes a sharply revisionist slant. That wouldn’t be a problem if the action weren’t so laden with symbolic weight and foreboding. Though the movie is not without thoughtful observations on gender roles and the effects of war, Hart’s characters tend to speak in poetic truths that call attention to their authorial polish. The cast breathes what life it can into the proceedings, with Otaru particularly impressive.
Shooting in Romania, director Daniel Barber drums up an atmosphere of rural horror in and around the story’s isolated farmhouse. Then he piles on the studied looks, sorrowful silences and portentous murmurs.
‘The Keeping Room’
‘MPAA rating: R for strong violence including sexual assault
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles.