Monday, December 28, 2015

In Daniel Barber & Julia Hart's THE KEEPING ROOM, we see The Civil War from a race/class/feminist angle

"War is cruel," goes the quotation from General William Tecumseh Sherman that begins THE KEEPING ROOM, an initially enticing, small-scale mixture of war film, western, suspense thriller and -- given the leading characters, there is no way around this -- feminist tale of what happens when a couple of unhooked and marauding Union soldiers come up against a trio of put-upon Southern women. The remainder of that "War is cruel" quote, written out in full at the film's beginning, is brought to ugly but believable life in much of the film that follows.

Writer, Julia Hart (at left, above), and director, Daniel Barber (at left, below) do a doozy of a job bringing us into their story -- which is told over the film's first seven minutes with not a word of dialog (unless you're willing to count the barking of a dog and the woman who barks right back).

The incidents we see, however, shatter us with their extreme and unnecessary violence. But, hey, we've got that quote to live up to. The filmmakers do not dwell on excessive gore; we see what we need to: the intended and some unintended results of war. We also note the extreme fear experienced by the victims of that war, who have excellent reason to be afraid.

From that opening seven-minute section, we move to some new characters, our protagonists, those three women: older and younger sisters (played respectively by Britt Marling, above, and Hailee Steinfeld, below,

and the black woman slave (by now a nearly ex-slave, as the War seems about to draw to its horrific close), played by the very fine actress Muna Otaru, shown below).

For roughly half of the running time of the film, Ms Hart's dialog together with Mr. Barber's smart direction keeps us quivering and hooked. We note the nastiness and ferocity of the two antagonists, played by Sam Worthington (below) and Kyle Soller, and feel sorrow at the plight of their victims.

But then, as tension mounts and our protags and antags inevitably meet, the movie begins to pack in an excessive amount of cliché -- who gets shot and who's dead or not -- so that we begin rolling our eyes in anticipation of more of the same. The filmmakers still have a mild surprise or two up their sleeves, but considering the amount of time we're suddenly spending watching women with guns and men with guns sneak around and about each other, the film begins to leach much of its former suspense and originality.

The penultimate scene seems intended to fully demonstrate General Sherman's quotation, while the film's final scene may not appear particularly believable, but then, the movie ends before we can actually judge how well this ploy will play out.

Mr. Barber, who earlier gave us the so-so Michael Caine revenge tale, Harry Brown, demonstrates a good sense of pacing and eye for detail, and his film is atmospherically shot (as above, by German cinematographer, Martin Ruhe) and well-scored (by Martin Phipps/Mearl),  I just wish it had held up a little better (and a little longer), before losing us.

The Keeping Room (the title comes from a dark and untimely coming-of-age tale that the slave tells the sisters), from Drafthouse Films and Cinedigm, after playing a very limited run (in Albuquerque and Chicago earlier this month) heads straight-for-video tomorrow, Tuesday, December 29, available on Digital Download HD. Click here for further details on how to order a DVD or Blu-ray.

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