Corpses putrefying, the social order gutted, bands of flesh-cravers roaming the countryside: Our pop apocalypses look a lot like life during wartime, which goes to show that Americans do have an interest in the suffering of refugees—just as long as it's sugared up with zombie thrills. A mean piece of work, Daniel Barber's lean and accomplished The Keeping Room comes as close as a Reconstruction-era thriller can to end-times genre fiction. There may not be anything supernatural here, but the relentlessness with which the film, a sort of prairie-home invasion, pits three Southern women (played by Brit Marling, Muna Otaru and Hailee Steinfeld) against scraggle-bearded Union soldiers could almost have led to calling it The Confederacy of the Living Dead.
The film's extended centerpiece: men trying to get into a house, and women desperate to keep them out, hunkered in the dark and teaching one another to load powder into muskets. One makes sure viewers get that this isn't just a historical drama: “What if all the men kill all the other men?” she asks. “What if it's the end of the world, and we're the last ones left?”
The Keeping Room is a provocation, yes, but also an interrogation of its own exploitative tendencies. What's scariest in the film isn't simply that these men seek to have their way with the bodies of these women, though the actors exude a steady menace. It's the dreadful familiarity of the setup, the economy of detail it takes to establish the stakes, the certainty that any time civilization seems to crumble away, there will be men thinking it's all an opportunity. From the first time one of these guys sees one of the women, at a creepily unpopulated bar and brothel, nobody but a child could miss where this is going.
It's also scary, perhaps, that near-rape scenarios remain grist for thrillers—and that the script, by Julia Hart, settles for familiar action-movie beats to get its heroines out of danger. It's no spoiler to tell you that one woman plays possum, or that when another goes missing for a couple of scenes, she'll show up just in time. You'll feel these turnabouts coming the way you can a sneeze. The film is admirably clear-eyed about what people are when everything keeping them human gets scraped away. Why is it also so Hollywood-blinkered about what violent confrontations would actually be like?
Note that it's the Northerners who are the villains, campaigners in a just cause, going rotten just because they have the chance to. (If the film catches on, expect aggrieved dudes to tweet #NotAllCarpetbaggers.) Barber (Harry Brown) and his design team offer up a spare and harsh past, putting their cast in half-furnished buildings that do look as if they might date back to the Civil War—but also as if they've been standing for 150 years. Everything feels hauntingly off, as though the world of these women has died without their quite understanding it. The wind Tara is gone with must have hurricaned through here.
Their men long gone, their land ravaged, these women continue to hoe their garden and hope. Otaru's character, Mad, a slave now freed, has stayed on with a pair of white sisters for reasons that become clear late in a crushing surprise—but also, the film implies, out of a need for safety and purpose. She doesn't seem to know where else to go, and this life she knows might beat the one she doesn't.
Life with the sisters isn't bliss, of course. Louise (Steinfeld, of True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2), the younger, still bosses Mad around as if Emancipation hadn't happened; Augusta (Marling) dresses her down for it, displaying flashes of decency you might mistake for anachronisms—the movies have long populated historical pieces with people who behave the way we'd like to think we would. But in the film's best scene, Hart's script complicates this. Augusta, in the long tradition of white allies betraying oppressed minorities, hauls off and slaps Mad after Louise suffers a raccoon bite. How the heart lifts when the recently liberated Mad clocks her right back.
The film's frustrating, fascinating, at times too eager to shock. But it's also daring and eccentric. After that bite, Steinfeld's Louise spends the film fighting disease, a curious role to give an actress whose previous western was powered by her marvelous motormouth. Otaru and Steinfeld, though, both improve on the showstopper monologue the script gives them. Forceful despite her breathy tremble, Otaru recounts her suffering in the “keeping room” of the title, a slaver's flesh pit: “Sometimes, they cut the baby out; other times, they keep them.” She delivers this speech to Louise between rounds of rape-threats, commiserating with what the sisters have just been ground through—and, surprisingly, seeming to second Augusta's self-pitying earlier declaration that, with their world gone, “We're all niggers now.” That's dangerous material, and the film leaves you to make of it what you will.
Marling, meanwhile, muscles a retelling of the story of Scheherazade into something fresh and urgent. That tale of a woman and her sister surviving the dumb cruelty of men is, of course, appropriate for the occasion. It's also a clever inversion of the damnable scenario we're watching: Augusta finds solace in the tale of the woman who mastered every wild and impossible story that there is—but these three are stuck in the story that feels most familiar of all.