Writer: Julia Hart
Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller, Amy Nuttall, Ned Dennehy
Running time: 95mins
The lowdown: Ferocious American Civil War horror from director Daniel Barber, taking a major step up from his debut Harry Brown. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld are Southern sisters besieged by two Yankee soldiers, including a dead-eyed Sam Worthington. Grim Southern Gothic, laden with atmosphere and dread, and graced by performances as intense as the subject matter.
The full verdict: Featuring rape and triple murder in the opening minutes, The Keeping Room sets out its stall from the get-go.
An unflinching look at war’s brutalising effects in an already brutal time, although there are plenty of sun-bleached vistas on show there’s little light.
Augusta and Louise (Marling and Steinfeld) are two Southern ladies on hard times now the menfolk have gone to war. Along with their slave Mad (Otaru), they subsist on thin vegetable stew and tilling the land. The war comes crashing in when Louise suffers a raccoon bite and Augusta ends up in a brothel searching for medicine.
There she catches the attention of Worthington and Soller’s nameless soldiers, who give chase with the worst motives in mind.
Straw Dogs by way of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with echoes of The Night of the Hunter, The Keeping Room is one of the most striking, unusual horrors of recent years.
Julia Hart’s intelligent, lean script expertly lays in character situations and backstory with a casual racist aside or venom-laced kind word, humanises both imperiled and aggressor and positions the whole thing as a feminist parable.
Knowing good material when he sees it, Barber patiently escalates tension and a sense of genuine death and decay before the home invasion violence. The brothel sequence is a set-piece of quiet terror as a kindly whore (Nuttall, a long way from Emmerdale) and the owner (Dennehy) attempt to manoeuvre Augusta out before the Yankee’s claim her.
Played to the hilt by a cast who inhabit the dirt and hardship of their roles (there’s barely a well-fed face on view), the knockouts are Marling, Steinfeld and Otaru. Replacing an originally cast Olivia Wilde, Marling is arresting as the unsentimental, driven “man of the house through circumstance” and Steinfeld is far from True Grit territory in this uncompromising “Southern”.
And Otaru is a revelation. Face turned down but never submissive, her portrayal is balanced perfectly as someone who knows the war may bring terror but also liberation. Her confessional, title-explaining speech late into the action, captures the entire movie in a horrific monologue that also suggests even in the darkest shadows hope flickers.