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Movie review: 'Keeping Room' is a powerful, painful look at women in wartime

Tribune News Service

Somewhere in the American South, 1865. "The Keeping Room" opens with a bang, and blood. This is the desperate and dire world in which we bear witness to the survival attempts of three women whose home and family have been decimated by the American Civil War.

Augusta (Brit Marling) is the steely, resourceful older sister protecting the homestead, which includes her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), insolent and vulnerable, and their slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). Lurking on the edges are two rogue Union soldiers, nursing an unslakable and vicious thirst for drink and women. The threat of violence, sexual and otherwise, permeates the atmosphere.

Directed by Daniel Barber, there's a studied grimness to the proceedings, which are grimy with gunpowder and sweat. There's a ghostly quality in the flickering light and dusty, barren houses, which is emphasized by the sound design, which whispers rather than roars, the air itself seeming to moan and quake. Written by Julia Hart, the conflicts are specifically feminine rape is a near constant presence and threat for the women here. But Augusta also mourns for her femininity, having had to become the man of the house in the absence of men. The gender role play is a last ditch survival tactic for these women in a world hell bent on destroying them.

Sam Worthington plays Moses, the smarter of the two soldiers; he is cunning, manipulative, parceling out little mercies and savageries. We don't get to know that much about him, just small details, nor do we quite understand why he's stalking these women, just that war changes people, the way they think and act and what they believe or don't. While the women imagine the horrors beyond the home, these men have been forced to partake in them.

The violence, particularly against women, is unceasingly brutish, and is hard to stomach, regardless of historical or contextual realism. However, the focus of the sexual violence is on the women's experience of it, not on the sensationalism of the act itself. It's never about the exposure of women's bodies but about the exposure of women's emotions and internal experience in relationship to violence. The result is a film that, while it carries an important and thoughtful message, can be difficult to watch.

As Mad says, "there are many kinds of monsters in this world, you never know which one gone be yours." The women meet at least a few of their monsters, but it's not over. This siege is just one of the many that the women will no doubt have to face, with the encroaching victorious Union soldiers cutting a swath through the South. Men go to battle, but women often take the brunt of war's cruelties.

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'THE KEEPING ROOM'

2.5 out of 4 stars

Rated R for strong violence including a sexual assault.

Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru

Directed by Daniel Barber

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes


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