The classic American western often gets looked upon badly by contemporary audiences. Ignoring their obvious melodrama and snail-like pacing, most of the issues no doubt lie in their subtle brutality and poor presentation of women. For the big John Wayne pictures of the 1950s, this was but a reflection of the times, but in 2014 there’s little excuse. Relative newcomer Daniel Barber sets out to right these wrongs, with his female lead western thriller The Keeping Room.
Set in the dying days of the American civil war, The Keeping Room finds sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) left alone to tend their secluded family farm whilst the men are away at war. With no one else but their slave maid for company, the pair are forced into a tense battle for survival when a small squad of passing soldiers set their sights on the house. Armed with a single rifle, the trio stand ready for attack, desperate to defend their livelihood from anyone that gets in their way.
Barber’s mission to re-define the American western is notable throughout his film, but by moulding the genre together with a more historical, rural deep south setting, he also disguises the more obvious elements of his approach somewhat. This gives the feminist outcries of the film a much more subtle context, strengthening them at their core and building for a far more entertaining and effective result. In fact, a lot of the time, Barber rolls his film out with gradual hints towards this bigger-picture view which, despite creating a slow pace from early on, ultimately allows The Keeping Room to be seen as more of a genre flick, with revolutionary undertones. Thus allowing it to be far more accessible and, to a certain extent, more fun.
The importance of this ‘entertainment factor’ cannot be stressed enough by Barber, who takes very obvious lessons from the likes of his predecessors, most notably Sam Peckinpah. Barber revels in the brutality of the American western with gleeful malice, diving between moments of annihilating silence and crushingly loud sound to deliver truly shocking flashes of violence. The Keeping Room feels almost as if Barber has blended together Peckinpah’s two most famous works: The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, the result being a bold and well-calculated home-invasion thriller with a period twist. In fact, Barber often embraces this likeness too much, forcing his characters to endure certain horrific acts just for the sake of homaging the greats. One specific stomach-churning assault sequence would have likely served the film better on the cutting room floor. However, even if he does slightly step overboard on a few occasions, Barber’s love and command of the genre is always present and commendable.
Despite the violence on display being often questionably extreme, Barber is saved somewhat by a dedicated group of characters (or one in particular) who restore some sense of humanity to the acts in question. Brit Marling’s lead is a force to be reckoned with, a fierce, loyal and tremendously astute heroine with the smarts of Sarah Connor and the instincts of Ellen Ripley. Marling is very much the film’s guiding light – her effortlessly real portrayal very much holds everything together and keeps Barber’s jet black narrative in check. An intriguing and barely-recognisable Sam Worthington provides a capable villain, although his against-type casting removes a certain element of ferocity and energy from the piece. Marling’s co-stars too provide credible support, but alas the bigger problem here is that other than Marling’s Augusta, no one has an awful lot to do. Even at their best, Steinfeld and co. are just backing figures in a bigger show.
Regardless of his arguably over-eager approach, Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room is an incredibly well-crafted update of the classic American western. With its feminist undertones and modernised brutality, there’s a lot for contemporary audiences to enjoy here, but a strong stomach and a patient mind come hugely recommended.
The Keeping Room, directed by Daniel Barber, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival on 12th, 14th & 15th October. Tickets are available from whatson.bfi.org.uk.