Entry 36: Murdering through Georgia

The Keeping Room. Directed by Daniel Barber. Written by Julia Hart.

Release Date: September 25, 2015.

I decided to watch The Keeping Room because it’s recent and in my Netflix queue. Turns out, it makes an perfect companion (or counterpoint) to Free State of Jones. Films like Jones are chipping away at popular culture’s longstanding love affair with the Lost Cause narrative, but others like The Keeping Room show we still have a long way to go. It’s not that The Keeping Room is a pro-Confederate movie. It’s using the Civil War to tell a story about gender and the horror of war but it incorporates elements of the Lost Cause seemingly as a matter of course. Yankees are murderous rapists, William Tecumseh Sherman is a monster, and slaves are invested in protecting their masters. I kept wanting to like this movie but the script’s outdated depiction of the Civil War proved more grating than I could bear.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Two sisters, Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), are living on a Carolina plantation in 1865. All the men are absent (presumably in the Confederate Army), as are the slaves (presumably having run away) except one, Mad (Muna Otaru). We find these women living in a near-feral state, focusing mainly on keeping themselves alive and barely speaking. There’s a Terrance Malick quality to the first act, as we watch them work the field and sit around the plantation. There’s a bit of Cold Mountain too—presenting a harsher versions of Ada and Ruby that includes race. Mad has an uneasy relationship with Louise because Louise remains committed to the master/slave relationship, despite the apparent collapse of the plantation system. Augusta and Louise also mirror their Cold Mountain counterparts (and a legacy of Hollywood southern women) in opposing the war altogether.

The film pits them against two embodiments of war’s worst elements: Yankees named Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller). We meet them even before the opening credits, as they murder a female slave after raping a white woman. This establishes a sense of lurking danger that carries through until we find Moses and Henry later holed up in a nearby shop. Augusta has to visit the for medicine store when a raccoon bites Louise. Moses is immediately drawn to Augusta but she escapes after the store’s other residents sacrifice their lives to protect her. The Yankees decide to track Augusta back to her home. Without spoiling too much, the women emerge victorious but only after suffering one rape and lots of violence.

The film’s message is not subtle. These women frequently refer to the war and the men fighting it with extreme disgust. At one point, Augusta wonders if the Civil War is Armageddon and all the men have killed each other. If so, she suggests, maybe the women will have to become the men. Gendered language likes this pops up repeatedly, and women passing as men plays a key role in the story’s resolution. These kinds of stories make war itself the antagonist, as it spirals out of control, destroys everything it touches, and robs its participants of their humanity. The film uses Sherman’s “war is cruelty” statement as an epigraph and Moses paraphrases it near the film’s end. Like Cold MountainThe Keeping Room positions its female characters as anti-war feminists, protecting themselves and their homes against a masculine cynical war. Even Moses is ultimately a victim of war itself, twice telling Augusta he rapes and pillages because fighting made him this way. White supremacy gets some attention early, with Louise’s treatment of Mad, but it’s quickly dispensed with as the women overcome their racial prejudices and ally against the Yankee invaders.

This message is a little simplistic, but showing the toll of war on the home-front is a worthy subject. The problem is the physical and temporal setting. In personifying the cruelty and inhumanity of war, the film portrays Sherman and his men in the worst possible light, reveling in the outdated “demon Yankee” trope. Indeed, Moses and Henry are so awful and so predatory I spent most of the film thinking they were deserters and/or irregulars. Near its end, the film tells us they’re “Boomers” (probably a corruption of “Bummers”) —advance scouts and foragers for Sherman. This reveal posits them not as outliers but official representatives of Union war policy. Thus, they become part of the long Lost Cause tradition (described excellently in Anne Sarah Rubin’s Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory) of depicting Sherman’s March as a feast of raping and burning. Like many of the film’s subtexts, Moses makes this one explicit by warning the women, “Uncle Billy’s coming, burning everything in his path. Rest assured, it will be cruel.” Near the end of the film, the army approaches the plantation like the tripods in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—a burning, thunderous, creeping doom just over the horizon (visible in the film’s poster above). Moses and Henry are harbingers of a huge mass of men just like them, come down from the North to prey upon and destroy women like Augusta, Louise, and Mad. The Union Army’s emancipationist motives are immediately dispensed with by having the two men murder slaves before the credits even role. This is reemphasized when Mad’s lover Bill (Nicholas Pinnock), now a USCT, returns to the plantation specifically to warn the women of Sherman’s approach.

What we’re left with is a good example of just how much the Lost Cause is embedded in popular culture. The Keeping Room never celebrates the Confederacy nor romanticizes slavery (although Mad’s loyalty strains credulity, especially later in the film when Augusta does something clearly awful), but it unintentionally reinforces myths about the victimized South and the imperial North. These depictions are problematic enough, but the film also has no interest in why either Sherman or his Confederate opponents are fighting. I’m as anti-war as the next guy and there have been good stories written about how the political and social causes of wars don’t matter to those directly affected by its violence, but setting the action on a southern plantation with a prominent slave character creates real problems. In the end, those problems and the narrative they sustain sapped my sympathy for The Keeping Room, making it a well-meaning but ultimately misguided depiction of the Confederate home-front.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Although I had problems with the story, Daniel Barber proves himself to be an intriguing director. There’s a little too much “shaky cam” for my taste, but there are also a lot of beautiful and interesting shots.
  • That being said, neither the direction nor the script are subtle. The prologue ends with a wagon in flames cutting across the screen, obviously foreshadowing Sherman’s advance. Moses and Henry also have a dog that symbolizes their lost humanity. Of course, it’s named “Battle.”
  • This is also one of those movies set in the 19th Century in which people don’t really talk like real people. The actors do pretty well with the dialogue they’re given (even Worthington, who can be hit-and-miss), but it’s part of what makes the film feel too much like an allegory, as opposed to a lived-in story.
  • On the plus side, the movie was clearly done on the cheap but you barely notice. Although, I did wonder why the house has so little furniture.
  • I’ve complained a lot here about how the film endorses the Lost Cause, but I should note how thoroughly it rejects my other Civil War pop culture pet peeve, the Football Analyst SchoolThe Keeping Room has absolutely no patience for the “glory” of war and paints the conflict as only brutal and devastating.
  • Does it mention slavery?: We get a few references from Mad, including a powerful scene in which she commiserates with a raped woman by describing her experience being sexually assaulted by her previous master. When Mad sees Bill as a USCT, she marvels that he’s probably “free.” We don’t get much more and Augusta and Louise’s past complicity in perpetuating slavery is only suggested.

Next Entry: Shenandoah

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