Not too long ago, I spent a summer at a women’s separatist commune in upstate New York. It was exactly the kind of thing you do in your early thirties when you need a “total spiritual rebirth”/something to pitch to VICE. From the outside, the commune looked like the ultimate “safe space” (pardon the expression), 150 Edenic acres where women could eat apples with their tops off and get Lyme disease. While I was there, however, one of the women told me a story about a neighbor who, years before, had trespassed onto their property with a few of his buddies and government-sanctioned guns, then threatened to “rape the woman out of the them” (which was simultaneously terrifying and grammatically confusing). The women may have survived physically unharmed (while the men went unpunished), but they continued to live under the unconscious threat of sexual violence—the same fear that so many women continue to experience in their daily lives, and the same terror captured so brilliantly by the otherwise unwatchable The Keeping Room.
The Keeping Room takes place during the least sexy part of the Civil War, Sherman’s epically brutal March to the Sea (think: less funky uniforms, more carpetbagging rapists). Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Stanfield), live on what remains of their plantation, along with their slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). The family’s men were all lost to the Civil War, leaving these women in some kind of post-apocalyptic world where they are forced to rely on themselves (and their gardening). Day after day, the women toil in the fields without antiperspirant, leading Augusta to declare to Mad that “We’re all n*ggers now.”
It’s an embarrassing attempt on behalf of the film’s white women trying to form solidarity across racial lines (and, you know, slave ones), and eerily reminiscent of certain second-wave feminists, who once declared themselves “the n*ggers of the world.” (Does the film actually endorse this kind of nonsense? It’s unclear). Intersectionality aside, the women are forced to fend for themselves, made to garden, hunt, wear dirty dresses, and—in between nine-month pregnant pauses—say sad things.
Still, the family enjoys a kind of lonely, tortured peace, until the day Louise gets bit by a rabid animal and Augusta has to go into town for medicine. While in the local general store, she encounters two rogue Union Soldiers, Henry (Kyle Soller), and Moses (Sam Worthington), both of whom are technically rapists, but who could also double for Brooklyn mixologist-musicians. Henry then (basically) rapes the store prostitute in front of us, before Augusta flees in abject terror. It’s at this moment in the film that horror peaks, then refuses to relent until a million minutes later, by which time snot and tears have already fossilized onto your sleeve.
Director Daniel Barber and writer Julia Hart have a message to send, and they send it clearly. A study which came out this weekend revealed that nearly 20 percent of college women have experienced some sort of sexual assault or misconduct. These are not women who’ve been kidnapped to work for ISIS—these are women who currently attend dopey universities dominated by lesbian a capella groups, pushover teachers, and socialist Quidditch teams. For so many women, both inside and outside this film, sexual terror isn’t a background SVU episode but an immediate and terrifying reality—one which never gives up and never pauses to provide its audience the relief they’ve been begging for.
To The Keeping Room’s additional (!) credit, it also chooses to tell stories of sexual trauma from the people who actually—get ready for it—experience it. We don’t hear about rape from the tortured Irish cop with the unfortunate drinking problem, and no Aryan, Nicholas Sparks-inspired former marine/bakery owner comes to a lady’s rescue. The women in the film are the narrative’s primary victims and the story’s leading heroes. They–not a helpful outsider–come to their own salvation. The only escape the film ever affords us are a few golden moments when the women shoot stuff, sending blood and guts and the perverted scraps of my sick personal happiness everywhere.
For all of the film’s emotional acuity, however, it seems to have no appetite for the filmmaking basics of dialogue, pace, audience engagement. The Keeping Room follows the True Detective Season 2 school of scriptwriting, in which pauses and mumbling form the negative space needed to highlight secondhand dialogue. Sure, The Keeping Room belongs primarily to the Western genre and was inspired by movies like Unforgiven and This Racist Movie My Grandfather Made Me Watch, which relied on lean, muscular heroes and prose. But The Keeping Room is also, simultaneously, a horror movie, a disaster flick, and a feminist film. I had hoped for something… well, more audible.
“It’s just that, mshhhblablabla, glugglusah,” Augusta the Sim says at one point, followed by a ninety-minute pause, where the audience tried to swallow the enormity of what she maybe said and I headed to the refreshment stand to load up on diabetes.
It’s not just the pauses that drags the movie down, it’s the creaking structural joints, taxed by an overweight story. Sure, Barber wanted to create an atmosphere of perma-terror, and I credit him for that. But brutality without escape—or without even a slight, structural change—becomes banality. There’s only so many “big pauses followed by loud noises!” and rape and starvation and frothing adult humans with animal rabies that a person can handle before wanting to disappear into the warm, welcoming bosom of their smartphone. Forgive this sentence, but honestly couldn’t there have been one cute little joke?
The Keeping Room isn’t hopeless. Cinematography by Martin Ruhe infuses bleached roads and dusty hills with some much needed (and Terence Malick-inspired) light. Without giving too much away, the women do find some sort of resolution, although only after two hours of nonstop cinematic and sexual trauma. Let me be clear: I’d far rather watch manic depressive porpoises flop around in Dolphin Tale 2 than suffer through this story again. But hey. At least The Keeping Room tells a story we actually need to hear, no matter how many times it’ll take for the audience in attendance, or the reader at his Twitter, or the police in the station, to listen.
Heather Dockray is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.