MOVIE REVIEW: The Keeping Room; or Civil War Panic Room

Perhaps the idea for The Keeping Room came after screenwriter Julia Hart (making her feature film debut here) went on a B movie, woman-in-peril, slasher film bender. Perhaps there was something about the exploitative material of the 70’s and 80’s that needed more exploiting and a re-imagining. And I guess the backdrop of the Civil War was as good as any—perhaps?

He's right behind you! Turn around!

He’s right behind you! Turn around!

After seeing the trailer I was all prepared to wax poetic about how if this movie were about three white men defending their turf while two armies of mostly white men bludgeoned one another over American turf at large, it would’ve been recognized as the start of Good Movie Season and Tom Hardy or someone of his caliber would’ve been mentioned as an Oscar hopeful, and this film would’ve easily played in 2,000 theaters having wiggled its way out of an R rating. But perhaps Hollywood did us a favor on this one…

White clothes...Metaphor?

White clothes… umm, metaphor?

I’m not sure exactly who to shine the spotlight of blame on. The obvious choice would be the director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) who has a checkered past when it comes to this kind of dark material; or it could be the other way around maybe seeing as it was Julia Hart wrote this—the monologues, in all of their vagueness, are hers. As of this review, I’m still stumped as to what either of them was trying to tell us with this piece. Regardless, what it all boils down to is cinematic pointlessness—and I’m not even trying to be harsh.

Don’t get me wrong: I love period pieces. I just spent the last 3 years of my life writing one. But I pose the same question(s) to the filmmakers of The Keeping Room, the same any reputable critic would pose, the same I posed to myself when I sat down to write my story, the same any general audience would pose sitting down to watch theirs: What does this all really mean? How does this story tie in to today?

Why

Why “run” when I can “walk”…

As far as the latter, there are flashes: the full liberation of women; women not needing to be defined by a man, they themselves should suffice; the constant sexual intrusion of men; (white) male aggression—if I’m reading the subtext correctly. But on the surface where movies need to make sense and entertain, nothing in this film strikes a chord.

Just so at least someone tells you: a keeping room is an area just off the kitchen of a home. Keeping rooms date back to Colonial times when families would sleep in that area when the rest of the house was cold. Since that area could be heated by the kitchen stove, it often provided the only heated place in the house. A fairly light Google search got me that definition. The title is named dropped twice but never fully explained. The “keeping room” also doesn’t factor much into the plot either.

Ominous, ominous, ominous...

Ominous, ominous, ominous…

The year is 1865 and if you’re an American, for your sake, I hope you know that this was the year the Civil War ended. (Bonus points if you know the day and the month.) Three women—two white sisters and their Negro slave—are living together in very close quarters on what I guess is a farm somewhere in the American south. I’m no historian but knowing what I know about Slavery—not the gray sanitized version being taught in American schools—none of what I saw here made a lick of sense. And yes, most stories are contrived, I get that. But this story is contrived beyond forgiveness. The Keeping Room purports that a Negro slave woman, who the movie places at or around the age of 30, would stick around to help two oblivious, lily-white white women, who fall somewhere between the ages of 17 and 30, who know very little about farm work (especially the younger one), who stupidly go walking into the woods and get bitten—off screen!—by a raccoon and become a non-factor (solely the younger one), who have no white men in their vicinity to protect them, who themselves have yet to pack up and travel north to safety, who most likely have treated their Negro slave woman worse than the animals on their farm, who oddly have mentioned to this same Negro slave woman at some point long before the narrative began the whereabouts of extra guns hidden in the house (these guns don’t become a factor until late into the proceedings at which point there is forced exposition on the movie’s part to relay this information to the audience), who ignore danger when it is smack-dab in their face (solely the older one), who lastly, clearly don’t have the muscle mass or sheer will to live they same way their Negro slave woman does and should their Negro slave woman turn the aggressor, it’d be improbable that either of these two white women could defend themselves against her. Taking all of this in I thought to myself, “There is not nearly enough flesh removed from the Negro slave woman’s back to justify this kind of obedience.” Do I have to anecdote about the etymology of the word cracker?

“We all niggers now”, says Augusta (Brit Marling, I Origins) to her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld, Barely Lethal) [She’s like the go to young lady for period pieces, isn’t she?] scolding her for talking down to Mad (Muna Otaru) their female Negro slave. But nothing about what she said was inauthentic. The filmmakers might want to play fast and loose with the time period and its race relations but Louise is absolutely right: why does she have to do field work? Three people don’t need nearly that much food to survive on, especially if all Mad is going to prepare is vegetable soup night after night, and if the men have yet to return home from battle. And why does Augusta need to chop wood for that matter when it clearly looks like and is early spring time? The Civil War ended in the spring of the same year this story takes place. And nights get warmer in the spring. Summer’s approaching, right? I hope the movie isn’t suggesting that she’s getting an early start on the winter which is at best six months away. So again, why is she chopping wood? (Something tells me this story was initially set during the harsh of winter and the production team overlooked this fact figuring no one would notice—that and they couldn’t come up with another scene in which Brit Marling could appear independent in soooo… Well, I noticed not even trying.)

One of my favorite young female actors; this generation's Michelle Rodriguez...

One of my favorite young female actors; this generation’s Michelle Rodriguez…

On the whole, this narrative was concocted in the mind of Hart—a white woman—who keeps Mad broken and docile. Of course if Mad were to slit the sisters’ throats while they were sleeping and then make a run for it there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there? With death so imminent for all the white women cropping up in this film any smart black woman—or any black woman who wants to keep her life—would take her chances out on the road *hint hint* Underground Railroad. Surely Mad’s heard of it; the early 1860’s was its peak time of usage for runaway slaves to Canada. (For one to know just how unruly Africans were, and for that matter, just how twisted and inhumane the white establishment was during Slavery or at anytime prior (or later), it would require personal enrichment beyond American textbooks and mainstream entertainment, I guess.) Later we learn via monologue—a breath of fresh air for these types of movies because speechifying is usually reserved for white principal actors—that Mad is deeply in love with Bill (Nicholas Pinnock, Monster: Dark Continent), a Negro slave man also residing on the sisters’ farm (and the movies way too contrived reason for why Mad is still on the premises possibly), who upon his arrival home is shot in the back while in an Union officer’s uniform. Elsewhere in the movie the other non-principal black characters also die—stylistically—and for no apparent reason: their skulls are burst open before slowly dropping dead, set ablaze while atop run away horse carriages and like Bill cowardly shot in the back while defenseless. Is this another metaphor for something? Is there some deeper meaning in how they die? As for the white characters, well, they die heroically of course, drinking family recipe moonshine and monologuing. But you knew that already…

And it’s because of these and many other gratuitous nihilistic deaths (of mostly white women) that I bring up slasher films. Only in those movies do killers (usually white men as is the case here) silently stalk their prey (young scantily dressed white women) through dark hallways and poorly-lit corridors, only in those movies is exposition doled out through a feeding tube or is just dismissed altogether, only in those movies are main characters silent when they should be yammering. In real life, Bill’s untimely demise could’ve been prevented just by simply saying, “Bill. Thank God you’re home!” out loud. I should be concussed at this point for the amount times I slapped my forehead at this movie’s silliness. I really felt like I was watching a slasher. Even the guy behind me kept huffing his breath and sucking his teeth. (It’s nice when it isn’t just me.)

You could try running...

You could try running…

The film also opens with a framing story that tells us that white men are who we thought they were: belligerent, rapist, sadistic, repugnant scum. And what do white men do to bring on so many bad adjectives, well, the aforementioned and then some. Look, I’m not here to pile up on white men. The movie does that all on its own. But what a movie like this does do is highlight a few cinematic privileges that the Movie Money People of Hollywood would never bestow upon a person of color. The closest filmmakers of color have ever gotten to romanticizing cinematic retribution for Slavery was Django Unchained and even that movie was written and directed by a white male who some think has an honorary hood pass. And that’s life in Hollywood boys & girls…

As for the rest of The Keeping Room, it’s par for the course. We get an obligatory scene of a black slave being called a nigger, a scene where the sisters do their hair and makeup (really tie their dresses) together and talk about “stuff” which is suppose to signify unity or family or something, copious amounts of extreme close-ups of nature, and scene after scene after scene of the two white female leads staring off into the distance feeling exiled, sensing fear, ignoring fear until eventually fear shows up on their front doorstep. Groundbreaking, amirite? A hair slightly above film school all of it—and it even has an obnoxious screechy violin score to boot. As for the dialogue, when characters do speak, it’s of the tin can variety. Which brings me to another thing: I will never understand for the life of me why in the 21st century, with all of the script gurus and screenwriting books, with all of the overpriced film schools populating the country, and with all of the screenwriting best-of lists (the script for this film was on one) and film-centered websites—I will never understand why screenwriters withhold key exposition from the audience, or their characters. I just won’t. Why can’t Augusta and Mad call out to one another so that way Augusta doesn’t have to turn blindly around a corner and shoot an innocent defenseless person in the back? Or make an attempt to call out at least? Why can’t the town hooker say to Augusta that if you continue to hang around town Sam Worthington is going to violently rape you and your sister and possibly your Negro slave? Why! Give me a reason, please do. The entire audience knows Sam Worthington is scum. The framing story explicitly implies it and the rest of the movie hits you over the head with it: white men are sadists and not to be trusted. So who are the filmmakers trying to keep in suspense? Fuck show, don’t tell…TELL! So that way you can find a more satisfying way to achieve actual tension and give us the audience the necessary info we need to buy into your story. Gawd!

Psycho-killer...

Psycho-killer…

I’d go further and discuss this film from a feminist standpoint but what for. It’s all so damn fatalistic. And there’s not much else to it. When people do and act in stupid, senseless ways this film is what you get—a shamble of a production that tries hard to be the third act of Home Alone and the second act of Panic Room but achieves neither. In the end this’ll most likely wind up on Netflix under “Strong Female Lead” which for me is a bit of a head-scratcher. Because after all of the bloodshed, and all of the carnage, and all of the supposed female empowerment, the closing image this movie throws up on screen is three women dressed up like men walking off into the sunset.

The Keeping Room – 1 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Amy Nuttall, Ned Dennehy
Director: Daniel Barber
Producer(s): David McFadzean, Dete Meserve, Jordan Horowitz, Judd Payne, Patrick Newall
Screenwriter: Julia Hart
Released: 09/25/2015; Runtime (in minutes): 95; MPAA Rating: R

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2 Responses to “MOVIE REVIEW: The Keeping Room; or Civil War Panic Room”

  1. Alpuan Atay Says:

    I am glad that at least the “Bummers” or Sherman’s Bummers who ravaged the Carolinas are depicted just as they were. I often heard my mother speak of the atrocities committed by the “Bummers.” They were not men who deserted but a legitimate regiment sent deliberately to destroy the land and the people.

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