Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Daniel Barber's Civil War picture is a misanthropic piece of work in the most literal sense. Julia Hart's screenplay effectively declares war on men, uniting mistress and slave at the tail end of the war in resistance to rape and pillage by Union soldiers. Sisters Augusta (Britt Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and a sole slave, Mad (Muna Otaru) are all that's left on the family farm as the Confederacy faces its reckoning. Like Scarlett O'Hara and her sisters, Augusta and Louise have to work in the fields alongside Mad in order to survive on humble crops. Louise is still spoiled enough to protest, asking why "the nigger" can't be left to do all the work. As Augusta explains, "It's like I said, we're all niggers now." You get the sense that she doesn't just mean herself and her sister, but says this in the spirit of the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song, "Woman is the Nigger of the World."

We're well past the legend of Sherman's March as a bloodless ravaging by this point in history. In its place, Keeping Room shows free-ranging Union foragers (led by Sam Worthington) committing random atrocities as they close in on our heroines' farm. Once they arrive, the film becomes something like a feminist version of Straw Dogs as the women fight off the blue bellies, though not before Louise, barely recovered from a raccoon bite, is raped. Add to this terror images like horses hauling a burning coach and its dead driver, or Augusta's discovery of a friend's pasty corpse, and Keeping Room seems to be a horror movie first and foremost.

The screenplay may insist too much that gender trumps race. It seems too good, if that's really the word, to be true that Mad forgives Augusta for shooting her returned lover in the back, mistaking him for another intruder. It's true enough that Mad was ready to shoot the same man in the back until he turned to reveal himself to her, but by this point in the film, long after Augusta and Mad had exchanged angry slaps, writer and director apparently have decided that race is no longer an issue. Instead, they have Mad recall the repeated rapes she suffered while still a girl in a mysterious plantation shed. On top of that, they have Augusta execute a wounded forager who had effectively surrendered, as if she was obliged to show him no mercy after killing the other man. In a grim parody of the end of Glory the dead forager and the dead freedman are dumped into a common grave, though Mad offers a dubious Augusta a spiritual assurance that the more innocent of the two is not really in the same place as the other.

In a final irony, as the main army advances on the farm, the only way the women can escape from the house of war is to become men by stripping the uniforms from the soldiers they've killed. You could argue that they've already surrendered much of their femininity, by the standards of their own time, by becoming killers, but the real message of this coda is more likely that there's no place for women in a world of men at war, so women must transform in one way or other in order to survive. It should be a happy ending since it looks like their plan will work, as long as they remain those few steps ahead of the soldiers swarming over the farm in the final shot, but at the same time it's an act of surrender -- just not the fall of the slave-plantation world we'd expect to celebrate. The Confederacy is dead, but injustice persists -- and the Confederacy's conquerors are perpetrating it. The Keeping Room may overstate its main point at times, but it's still an honestly unsettling movie about two civil wars: the one we see ending, and one that many say goes on today.

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