Director Daniel Barber has a talent for sussing out the brutality intrinsic in the everyday. In 2009's Harry Brown, Michael Caine played a Cockney retiree who avenges his best friend by taking on the hoodlums who live in the same council estate. It was revenge both Caine, and cane, style.
In The Keeping Room, Barber, working off a script by Julia Hart, explores the violence for those left at home during wartime.
It's the waning days of the Civil War, Augusta (Brit Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their slave Mad (a fantastic Muna Otaru) have been left to fend for themselves, isolated and without men. They live a hardworking yet dreamy life. Augusta is tough and pragmatic, while Louise is younger, with all the hope, angst, and anger inherent in her situation. The character's comparative helplessness is sharply at odds with Steinfeld's Oscar-nominated breakout role in the Coen Brothers' True Grit.
A duo of Yankee soldiers wreak havoc on the three women's small part of Georgia, spelling trouble for them when one (Avatar's Sam Worthington) spots Augusta and becomes infatuated with her.
As the Yankees enter the picture, the dreaminess of Barber's film evaporates, and it becomes an art-house thriller.
The Keeping Room looks at the brutality of humanity, but for Mad, it has been present longer than it has for the two white sisters. She calmly relates to the young women that violence, both emotional and sexual, has been a part of her life since she was a child. This is nothing new; she knows the depths to which man can descend.
It's a chilling scene, perhaps more haunting than those scenes meant to be thrilling.
Directed by Daniel Barber. With Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington. Distributed by Drafthouse Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 mins.
Parents guide: R (strong violence including a sexual assault).