15 Perfect Shots: Exploring the Importance of Perspective with The Keeping Room

By  · Published on December 30th, 2016

Celebrating the visual brilliance of an underseen 2015 film.

Calculating. Cruel. Withdrawn.

This week we’ve been talking about our #2016Rewind. As part of that, I thought it would be nice to talk about 2015 for a few minutes. As we go about making our end of year lists, it’s always a bit tough to accurately gauge which movies will still be with us in a year’s time. Well, The Keeping Room was not only my favorite of 2015, it’s one that’s still with me.

There’s a few reasons for that. First, the film is gorgeous. There’s quite a bit of excellent light and shadow work on display. The composition is always on theme. Second, the movie works with some very frank and challenging questions from a woman’s perspective. Third, the creative aims of the writer with this particular piece hit home with me. Basically, it’s essential to increase representation in film. The images are on display through the piece. I’d like to take you through some of the key issues the movie directly engages with and then I’d like to talk about the overarching goals from the filmmakers’ perspectives.

There’s spoilers ahead, friends. If you haven’t seen it, please stop what you’re doing and watch this movie.

Sometimes it’s good that nothing is normal.
War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over. – William Tecumseh Sherman, Union Army General.

The above quote is the opening title card. It’s a message from William Tecumseh Sherman. War is cruelty. Make no mistake. This is a rough movie about complex issues without easy answers. If that doesn’t set the tone for you, the opening scene will.

The Keeping Room opens to a woman walking along a road carrying a heavy load. Coming around a bend, she encounters an angry looking dog. She engages with the dog, almost playfully, barking at it and refusing to yield the road. She sees a carriage. A woman bursts out, fleeing at maximum speed. A Union soldier ambles out of the carriage. Her escape is framed in a gorgeous wide shot of a beautiful field. As she approaches the right side of the frame, she’s shot in the back. The soldier buttons his fly and prepares to torch the carriage. The first woman sees the terror of the carriage driver. As she realizes the implications of all this, another soldier comes into the frame and points a gun at her. He shoots her in the head. The carriage driver trembles. The soldier sets the carriage on fire. Welcome to the film.

Look at that shadow work. Just look at it.

Daniel Barber, the director, has a compelling way of working with violence. If you’ve seen his previous film, Harry Brown, you’ll know what I mean. The viewer is introduced to the terrible ugliness of these men with simple acts. The Union soldier buttoning his fly. The frightened face of the carriage driver.

In The Keeping Room, Barber showcases some of the least exploitative movie violence in maybe the most intensely brutal way. I’ve seen some playfully blood soaked, flesh chopping violence in the most egregious grind-house schlock out there. This is not that. Our characters are not cartoons or disposable. You are meant to feel the fullness of each act of violence in the film. This is not for your entertainment. There’s nothing unsophisticated or purposeless to their actions. It is horrifying.

Kyle Soller gives a terrifyingly excellent performance.

The movie is the story of two white sisters, Augusta, played by Brit Marling, and Louise, played by Hailee Steinfeld. They were left to fend for themselves as the Civil War’s call to arms took the men from their town. With them is a black woman – the sisters’ slave – Mad (Muna Otaru). When Louise is injured, Augusta leaves the homestead in search of medicine. In her travels, she attracts the attention of the two Union soldiers from the opening scene, lead scouts and ravagers for General Sherman’s army. Things go very badly from there.

That’s the plot, but The Keeping Room is another film where I feel like the plot of the film and what the movie is really about are not necessarily the same thing. Complementary, but not the same. As I said at the beginning, this is a complex movie with a great deal of thematic elements worked together.


As a genre film, free of any other consideration, The Keeping Room is solid. It’s a Civil War piece that descends into a siege film. If you watch it for that, you’ll enjoy it, but you’ll miss out on what it’s doing. The best genre films do something with their tropes. They provide a digestible mechanism for us to take in complex commentary on some facet of the human condition. In The Keeping Room we’re working with a metaphor for living as a woman in a hostile world and what that does to one’s sense of self and purpose. The filmmakers are exploring some key questions.

In this movie their environment is radically altered. The Civil War has changed their society already and will do so irrevocably. So, if the society that always told them what they were meant to be no longer exists, how do they know who they should be? How do they know who they are?

Nothing is safe from the world of men.

The movie splits its time. The opening portion establishes that all the characters are confused, upset, and frustrated about the upheaval in their lives. As they should be. Augusta is hunting and dealing with the responsibility of being the head of the household. Louise is angry. Her support structure is broken and she is suddenly confronted with the naivete of her child like lackadaisical approach to the world. Mad is trying to figure out what the new boundaries are to her situation.

As they deal with their changing relationships and the siege, they begin to create new identities for themselves. They start to identify their trio as their new support structure. It’s a complicated progression, but it has a lovely conclusion. They invest in their sisterhood and subvert the world of men to suit their needs.

The acting in this scene is so brilliant, it hurts my brain to think about it.
I don’t think you succeed in a female-driven project if you’re just dropping a woman into a role that is usually inhabited by a man. You have to change the entire structure and style within that world to be female, for it to be believable that this is a real woman who is existing in that space.” Julia Hart, Co.Create

When The Keeping Room came out last year it was pitched to viewers as a “feminist Western”. I’m really not quite sure what that means, especially for a Civil War period piece set in the Confederacy which descends into a siege film. Regardless, that marketing successfully gave the filmmakers ample opportunity to share some of their thinking on the importance of representation in film. Julia Hart, who wrote the movie, used some of those interviews to talk about the need for women to mythologize. And that wording was a lightning bolt to my brain.

For my money, humanity’s biggest accomplishment is storytelling. It allows us to explore where we are and where we want to go. Fast forward several dozen millennia, and storytelling turns into movies. We use cinema to recount the troubles of our past. To dream about who we want to be. To examine who we are and what that means. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m watching movies. Even in silly movies, the human condition is frequently up for discussion.

My vote for Best Supporting Actress of 2015.
“We need to move away from this idea that being strong as women means being impervious, or stoic, or superhero-like – instead, it should actually mean being real, and messy, and feminine, and not being afraid of that. That, to me, is the real strength.” Julia Hart, Co.Create

When our storytelling isn’t fully representative, we’re losing probably the most important tool in our quest to become better than we are: the ability to contextualize our struggle. Because we’ve all got a struggle. And that’s where this idea of mythologizing starts to come together with representation. Hart identified a need for more stories about femininity, made up of earnest, unafraid looks at that experience. She dialed in on the importance of that characterization as a “strong” woman. I agree entirely. Selfishly, because I think the average idea of the stoic warrior as a strong man is destructive to men in similar ways. But, look, I’m all about genuine characters making contextually reasonable decisions and being impacted by them.

This moment.

I think what I’m getting at is there’s a difference between caricature and archetype. What do I mean by that? An archetype is boiled down to mean a standard example, or in some cases a Platonic ideal. There is enough entertainment focused on men being men that creators can pull meaningful archetypes from that cultural knowledge to ease the story along as they work through more complex issues.

On the other side of that, a caricature is a depiction with a deliberate exaggeration or misrepresentation. When I see a caricature of man on the screen that’s there for a laugh or for effect, I know it for what it is. But, honestly, that’s only because I see so many different sides of my experience represented in film. Now, if my experience wasn’t so thoroughly explored in media, it would be a lot harder for me to see thoughtful, representative archetypes on screen. Even honest attempts at meaningful archetypes would become caricatures because creators would be pulling from a tiny portion of my experience as though it were representative of the whole.

That is the value of increasing representation. Our stories, on the whole, will necessarily become more relevant and stronger for it. More importantly, people who aren’t straight, white, dudes will see more of themselves on the screen. Because, if you take away that cultural depth, what you wind up working with are not archetypes, but fun-house mirror versions of our least insightful, most basic traits.

Wielding violence has a price, too.

That genuineness that Hart talks about, faults and all, is my favorite thing about the film. It’s also the most challenging part. There’s a scene where Augusta flatly tells her sister in offensively bald language that their experience in life is now the same as a black person’s experience in the south. And, well. Clearly that’s wrong. As intrinsic and destructive as sexism and misogyny are in our society, they are not comparable to slavery and the legacy of racial oppression. But, the way I read that scene, it was a very genuine sentiment for Augusta to express. It’s her naivety showing. That warty earnestness is a vulnerable but powerful thing.

I did spend much of the movie worried with how the character of Mad would be used to advance the film. Mad has a monologue near the end of the movie that demonstrates a character of great depth and represents the emotional crux of the film. Her monologue about her experience in the south is devastating. In terms of craft, it’s one of the best monologues in cinema. In terms of narrative, it is the filmmakers crushing out Augusta’s naive take from earlier in the movie. Mad’s discussion of the fate of her monsters is heart wrenching. She has every reason to suspect that hers died fat, happy, and old, and that rings accurate. Still, each of the characters has a personal monster to overcome, even as they share in a similar struggle of being women compelled to overcome the aggression of man.

The surrendering of arms.

The success of Hart’s aims really comes down to the actors and the director. The entire team is unreservedly operating from the same page. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld are awesome in their ability to bring that necessary human complexity to the roles. Muna Otaru in her role as Mad was my favorite performance of 2015. She spends the film being asked to add layer after layer of depth to her character. Watch this film again and again, and the quality of her performance is present in every scene.

“What if all the men died?”

With all of these talents brought together, Daniel Barber has directed it in his inimitably brutal but emotional style. The Keeping Room is amongst the best that cinema has to offer. I am unabashedly taken by this movie, but reluctant to say that I love it. It’s a very earnest story of brutality endured. And I’m not sure I should love that. But, it is powerful as it strives to show real characters, as they are, engaged in a great struggle to determine the course of their future. That’s what works for me. This was my favorite movie of 2015 and continues to be something I think about on a regular basis. If you didn’t stop and watch it earlier, I strongly encourage you to see this film.

“What if we was men instead of women?”

What do you think? With movies like this, do you think it’s still appropriate to say we love them? It’s powerful. It’s direct. But, it’s also uncomfortable. Maybe I’m being too precious about the term. What do you think about the Civil War side of the story? Does it use the setting to explore an interesting, less discussed side of the period? Or, is it a bust for you? Let’s chat in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this film.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.