2017 Film Essays

Netflix from 5 to 6: Daniel Barber’s ‘The Keeping Room’

Q.V. Hough’s column ‘Netflix from 5 to 6’ explores streaming titles with IMBD ratings between 5.0-6.0 and Rotten Tomatoes scores above 50%. The purpose is to examine what makes the films appealing to critics but problematic for casual viewers.

Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room will frustrate many Netflix viewers. As of today, the film has a 6.0 IMDB rating and 77% Rotten Tomatoes score. In others words, there’s something that general moviegoers don’t connect with. Thematically, it’s an accessible thriller, yet the violence — sexual and graphic — doesn’t come and go. Images linger. A sense of tragedy persists throughout, and the defining moments remind that “there are many kinds of monsters in this world.” With that being said, pain is relative for the central characters. And so, The Keeping Room requires some patience.

During the American Civil War, three Southern women – two white and one black – survive on their own by sharing duties. Nearby, two Union soldiers look for food. In the opening sequence, actions speak louder than words. Local women die; Uncle Billy’s “bummers” move ahead. The female protagonists – Augusta (Brit Marling), Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad (Muna Otaru) – soon discover they must trade daily routines for strategic thinking. Augusta inadvertently encounters the soldiers, and she barely escapes. Her beauty and bold moves intrigue one of the men, Moses, played by Sam Worthington. But, he must tread carefully with Augusta.

With the conflict established, The Keeping Room focuses mostly on relationship dynamics, examining the mindset of each female character. Augusta represents a motherly figure, but she values domestic balance more than absolute power. When she slaps Mad, Mad slaps her right back — to make a point, and because she can. Meanwhile, young Louise is clearly naïve, and she ultimately experiences the most obvious pain. When the soldiers arrive, the women have already trained themselves to be mentally strong, recognizing a larger narrative at work. They share anecdotes and metaphorical stories to make sense of their experiences, fully aware that “dead monsters” can’t do them any harm. They’re prepared for the proverbial hunt, as they recognize their small existence in a dog-eat-dog world. Outsiders see black and white, yet Mad and Augusta view each other as equals. And Louise? She grows up quickly after nearly meeting Death. There’s no longer time for petty arguments.

Visually, The Keeping Room maintains a spiritual tone, yet bloody sequences jolt the women back to earth. They need each other to survive, so the camera focuses on their domestic interactions, and how they communicate. They’re not idealistic dreamers; Augusta doesn’t sit on the porch to reflect on Mother Nature’s beauty. Rather, it’s a dead woman nearby that looks outward, and with a bottle of poison by her side. When Augusta finds the body, her resilience shines through even more. She adapts and thinks ahead. How can I survive today?

Brit Marling delivers a moving performance as Augusta, communicating the constant stress of the character’s existence. Augusta acts quickly, and she’s firm with both men and women. When she makes a decision, she doesn’t hold back. Mad recognizes Augusta’s strength and the love for young Louise. She provides clarity for Augusta, and vice versa. It’s a give-and-take relationship, one that benefits Louise, too.

Alongside Marling, both Otaru and Steinfeld operate with incredible restraint, balancing that feeling of being overwhelmed yet still focused. In turn, director Barber keeps the camera locked in during the most poignant moments. When a tear drips down Mad’s face, one can feel it, along with a moment when she touches Augusta’s chin, suggesting that inner strength and mutual support will keep them moving forward. When they’re not speaking, cinematographer Martin Ruhe speaks for them, whether it’s through naturalistic close-ups or medium shots that explore the characters’ thoughts and physical space.

The Keeping Room can be a difficult film to process, at least for the skeptical viewer, or the Netflix subscriber that cooks and makes phone calls during the first 10 minutes of a film. But don’t let the disturbing opening sequence turn you away. Yes, the leads experience immense pain, both physical and emotional, but they’re not hardened, bitter women. Augusta, Mad and Louise seek to become the best versions of themselves. They’re just breaking out of their shell, adjusting to the world around them and preparing for a brighter future. There’s no blaze of glory, but rather a collective maturation. Patience is their virtue.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.