Despite being set near the end of the American Civil War, The Keeping Room (2015) feels oddly untethered to the time period in which it is set. The film's atmosphere invokes an impending apocalypse more than a factual historical event. Perhaps this is because, ultimately, Daniel Barber’s film is not really about the Civil War -- it is a modern political parable that uses its loosely applied historical lens to address present day gender and race questions.
The Keeping Room follows two white, southern sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave (Muna Otaru) who hole up in their house, fighting off scouts sent ahead by Sherman’s advancing Union army (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller). The men, hardened by their wartime experiences, have become monsters with little on their minds besides drinking, senseless murder, and—most crucially to the story—rape. Fighting off these rapists, the women bond together and exhibit generous, sisterly love, while the two white women overcome their racism and learn to see their former slave as a third sister.
Through its mixing of modern elements with its past setting, The Keeping Room produces a sense of abstract generalness that feeds the feeling that we're in a moral parable. In following through this thought experiment of three women stuck in a house fighting off two rapists, the film is teaching us about, on the one hand, racial equality and, on the other, female strength. (The men in the film are mainly portrayed as sick animals with the constant intent to rape, so it would be less accurate to speak of gender equality.) These are profoundly important causes to espouse, although due to the film's symbolic vagueness and lack of specific texture, the messages come across as on-the-nose and heavy-handed.
But the strangeness of the film’s atmosphere also may be partly due to our expectation of historical wartime films -- first, that they typically follow men fighting and barely acknowledge women; and second, that they are shot in a conventional, “historical” cinematic language, using wide and sweeping establishing shots, long scenes of giant armies battling to the death, an emotionally stirring orchestral score, etc. We expect period films to conform to this cinematic shorthand to situate us in a time period like the Civil War. In contrast, The Keeping Room is shot in an entirely different language -- it uses a shaky handheld camera, overhead shots, spontaneity, a focus on individual persons with little attention to the wider picture. The visual style and creepy sound design suggest the thriller or horror genres with aspects of a contained interpersonal drama. All these elements jar with the idea of the civil war that we’ve subconsciously built up through previous representations from Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Red Badge of Courage (1951) to Glory (1989) and Lincoln (2012).
In addition to the cinematography, the writing and directing give us a strong sense of modernity pervading the story. When Steinfeld’s Louise calls Otaru’s Mad the N-word, Mad’s sudden stiffening and look of offense is the reaction of the audience watching today -- an age when the vast majority of people acknowledge the wrongness of the word -- not the reaction of a woman who would have been spoken to in the most derogatory language and tone imaginable throughout her life (in addition to the physical and sexual abuse her character has experienced since childhood) and would expect this word from her cruel young mistress. Later, when Marling’s Augusta slaps Mad, Mad slaps back. Physical retaliation by a slave during the time period of the Civil War would have been extremely dangerous and almost certain to be met with punishment, whereas Augusta just shrugs and realizes she was wrong to slap Mad in the first place.
The film is making the point that the old hierarchy and power structure have lost some of their dominance with the defeat of the Confederate army, but given the sparse, abstract way the scenes are written, these moments feel like illustrations of social lessons relevant to today's society, rather than the complex psychological portraits of real people who have lived with slavery up to this point. As Augusta and Louise come to accept Mad as their equal, the story isn't really concerned whether it’s believable that two deeply racist slaveowners will suddenly adopt a knowing belief in equality. The film is not interested in race or gender issues at the end of the civil war; it is interested in addressing those issues for the society we live in now.
The men the women fight are dubbed “monsters” — every woman has her monster, the film tells us. This observation makes it clear that the men in the story are not real, three-dimensional characters but symbols of an obstacle women must overcome in order to grow and survive in a hostile world. The film is awash with other symbolic messages: in the opening, a former slave encounters a barking dog. She tries to bark back at the dog, only to find that the wicked men (who later attack the house) are nearby. They shoot her in the head after she witnesses them kill a white woman they've just raped. The dog, we learn, is named Battle.
As the dog hovers near the evil men throughout the film, the message we’re given, then, is that war is bad and brings out our worst. But The Keeping Room makes a distinction between war’s effect on the respective genders: evidently, deprived of the rules of peaceful society, men devolve into heartless, murderous beasts, whereas women summon an unforeseen strength and self-sufficiency, even growing into better people with more liberal political views.
The Keeping Room has been dubbed “radically reimagined” and in its stylistic choices lives up to this description. But looking at the cartoonishly wicked male characters and the shallow obviousness of the sisters’ journey to unlearn their racism, the tradeoff for the film’s abstract radicalness is a substantial measure of texture and depth.
Yet The Keeping Room is perhaps like no other film viewers will come across -- it makes a striking choice to embrace its identity as a modern parable meditating on gender and racial relations in our time.