Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Keeping Room Movie Review: Gone With The Wallflower Feminist Western

A bold and ballsy retro-futuristic fantasy feminist western with tall tale truth telling at its core, The Keeping Room provocatively and subversively sets in motion 19th century gender reinvention at the climactic moment of a defeated Dixie during the Civil War. Reimagined through the irreverent outsider Brit perspective of director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown), the film likewise sexually tests the limits of traditional storytelling conventions via female screenwriter Julia Hart.

It's 1865 in rural South Carolina, and young matriarch by default Augusta (Brit Marling)- no Scarlett O'Hara shrinking violet -  is anxiously presiding over the modest family plantation along with her teenage sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). The three females barely survive collectively on what meager sustenance they can grow themselves, which tends to stir in Mad a growing, rebellious sense of her own worth and independence. And that does not sit well with the condescending spoiled and sullen Louise.

And with little sense of what's going on with the war and why in their isolation, the women bide their time awaiting the return of the men. And in the case of Mad, her sweetheart who may have fled to freedom in the north or joined up with the Union Army, or perhaps both.

But when Union soldiers turn up with malice on their minds that has nothing to do with battle, including a brutal crime spree of pillaging, rape and slaughter, the lines between war and murder are pointedly blurred, along with any typical notions of  'good guys' in that war. As an unrelenting and terrifying home invasion thriller kicks in for the duration, and occasional more awkward 'can't we all just get along' moments that present themselves as well.

The Keeping Room sustains a cinematically mystical atmospheric glow in stark contrast to its horror. And with an ultimate, strangely triumphant gender challenging vicarious reinvention, as the reborn warrior women shed their own socially connected sexual identities in a wild, vicarious fashion statement reassignment bid. Fed by fury, however reckless, and an impulse for feminist freedom enlightened by the notion that women are always consigned to fighting a different war - characterized by sexual brutality against them - no matter which side of whatever conflict.

And facilitated no doubt at the time, by the fluid post-war 'manifest destiny' frontier ripe for identity reincarnation. Which would be populated as well by that historically hidden Southern post-traumatic stress disorder human wreckage known instead ever since then, as those mythologized wild west outlaws.

Prairie Miller

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations

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