Film review: The Keeping Room


Revolving around the fear and paranoia built on the social perceptions of the gender construct, The Keeping Room pairs the uncertainty resulting from the aftermath of the American Civil War with the fear associated with being female in a male-dominated world.

Directed by Daniel Barber, the film sets the scene in a hard-hitting world dominated by a conflict only resolved using guns to tell a story of morality. With a focus on the female perspective, The Keeping Room provides a fresh take on the western genre for a contemporary audience reimagining traditionally male dominated genres such as the western and paralleling that with a fear experienced by women that relates to power, safety, and control.

The Keeping Room stars Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, and Muna Otaru as three Southern women – two sisters and an African-American slave – defending their home and protecting themselves from the oncoming threat of two horrible soldiers, played by Sam Worthington and Ned Dennehy, who clearly have no value for women.

Through the use of hand-held camera and a suspenseful soundtrack, an unsteadiness is felt throughout. With a plot that focuses on the female and the majority of the cast being of the female gender it seems as if Barber is trying depict a story that is to be viewed from a female’s perspective. That said, the story is too simplified to work in representing the full spectrum of the female perspective. Instead, much of the tone is drawn from the monochromatic colour scheme of the film itself. I found that the colour grade, the set design, and the costumes along with the characters a little cliched and generalised as clearly obvious ways of creating storytelling contrasts within a script.

The Keeping Room seems to present to us two generalisations of the social construct which assumes on a binary level a) males are horrible monsters and b) women are to be protected and the only way to do so is through violence. The use of guns as a power play in storytelling is no doubt a motif that relates to psychological control in a male dominated world, where the fragility of life relates to merely existing.

Barber parallels the fear and uncertainty of war and ties it in with a story about gender and social hierarchy. He however, does it in a way diminishes the value of the female. Perhaps Barber’s intention in creating The Keeping Room is to portray the strength and resilience of the female in the midst of threat, to her home as a symbol of safety and social belonging, and to herself as a confronting look into the truth of identity whether seen by self or by others, but in my mind it fails to extend beyond this illustration.

The Keeping Room provides a dangerously misleading concept driven by a stereotype of fear associated with being female, such as the possibility of assault (which unfortunately can occur to either gender regardless), as a simplified interpretation of gender that is based on experience and is narrow minded in its portrayal.

The story simplifies its characters in order to deliver and drum in the idea that all men are assholes and creeps, and that if an opportunity arises, you will be raped. Although this isn’t true to life, it is a powerful and disturbing view that is impossible to shake.

Catch the film at the “Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now” festival, taking place in the following cities:
Tuesday 17 May to Wednesday 1 June – Sydney
Wednesday 18 May to Wednesday 1 June – Melbourne
Thursday 19 May to Wednesday 1 June – Brisbane and Canberra
Thursday 26 May to Wednesday 8 June – Adelaide

See the full programme and find out more here:



Review by Addy Fong.