Monday, 2 November 2015

THE KEEPING ROOM - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Precious, Pretentious "Feminist" Western

The Keeping Room (2014)
Dir. Daniel Barber
Scr. Julia Hart
Starring: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Manu Otaru,
Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall

As Sherman marched through the South, decimating everything in his path, he placed considerable trust in his scouts to sniff out what lay ahead that could be burned and/or pillaged. Given that the menfolk on the Rebel side were off being slaughtered by the Yankees in a bloodthirsty, unevenly matched war, those left behind in the South were women, children, the old and infirm. One can't exactly place much in the way of heroism in Sherman's deeds, nor according to this movie, in those of his scouts who only had one thing on their minds - and we all know what that was.

Julia Hart's screenplay focuses upon those women left behind and her earnest efforts certainly exemplify the old college try, but for all its female bonding, attention to detail and attempts at putting a revisionist feminist spin on things, the whole affair comes up short - partially due to the too-lean script and Daniel Barber's precious direction.

The picture is finally little more than a Straw Dogs wannabe crossed with Kelly Reichardt's astonishing Meek's Cutoff.

Three women, comprised of two Southern belle sisters (TV stalwart Marling and True Grit's Steinfeld) and their female slave (Manu Otaru) live a hard, lonely life without the menfolk around to handle the heavy lifting. In addition to all the womanly household chores, they're out in the fields trying to yield what they can from the earth - Marling even ventures into the woods with her shotgun to try hunting.

Goldurn it, these ladies is never goin' hungry agin.

Just a ways down the road, a pair of Yankee scouts (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) are having one grand old time: pillaging, stealing, drinking, cussing, killing and most of all, raping. Yes, these boys just loves to rape. They spend so much time sniffing out prime flesh and then raping and killing it, one wonders when they have any time to do what General Sherman needs them to do.

Soon enough, these randy rapists will be coming to call upon our trio and we spend a good chunk of the movie watching the womenfolk defending their virtue and home. Along the way, the movie provides some passing nods to race relations and sexuality, but the name of the game is rape and revenge. Curiously, there's not much in the way of rape - there's one attempt upon the feisty Steinfeld, followed by plenty of prowling around and eventually the inevitable extraction of vengeance.

One can't quarrel with any of the solid, try-as-they-might performances and the gorgeous visuals, but this is one dull, precious and pretentious movie. It carries itself with an elegiac lope, but there's no real heft to its pseudo-arty rambling. It wants to have its cake and eat it too by taking a good wallow in girlie-girl concerns and some good old fashioned ultra violence, but just in case we'd mistake it for an exploitation item, everything is paced like that snail Col. Kurtz talks about in Apocalypse Now, slooooooowwwwwwllllllyyyy "crawling along the edge of a straight razor".

By the time the relatively modest running time unspools towards its "surprise" (not really) killing and the fake solidarity of womanhood as the ladies destroy everything before the Yankees can destroy it, we've felt like the movie has gone on forever and we're delivered one final sickening blow, the trilling of a mournful song whilst our trio disappear into the vastness that will become a new America. (Hmmm, I think I'm making it sound better than it is.)

The only real revisionism here is taking a potentially drama-charged setting and scenario, then slowing it down to a molasses ooze to fool some people into thinking they're seeing art. If there was a good screenplay here, director Barber hasn't done it any favours by applying a bargain basement Kelly Reichardt Meek's Cutoff contemplative approach to the proceedings. What was great there, is a big snore here. And, by the way, if you are hankering for a great revisionist western with a solid female character and perspective, you'd be better off with that film than The Keeping Room.

It's the real thing. This one's a fake.


The Keeping Room is in limited release via FilmsWeLike. In Toronto it unspools at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.