"I've Been Looking for You": Reconfiguring Race, Gender, and the Family through the Female Agency of the Keeping Room

By Carter, Matthew | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

"I've Been Looking for You": Reconfiguring Race, Gender, and the Family through the Female Agency of the Keeping Room


Carter, Matthew, Papers on Language & Literature


The independently produced The Keeping Room (2014), based on a debut script by Julia Hart and directed by Daniel Barber, is an uncompromisingly violent film set during the last days of the American Civil War. It opens with an epigraph quoting Union Army Commander General William Tecumseh Sherman: "War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over." Sherman famously made this chilling philosophy manifest in the late-1864 Savannah Campaign (the "March to the Sea"), during which his army rampaged through the Confederate state of Georgia deliberately terrorizing the civilian population, burning, raping, and looting as it went. While providing a suitable historical framework within which to situate The Keeping Room's violence, Hart and Barber choose to localize and personalize their take on the conflict by basing the film's action at a remote farmstead in South Carolina, where a different kind of war will take place.

Living there are three young women: Augusta (Brit Marling), her younger sister, Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), and their family slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). Introduced effectively as orphans, their mother already dead before the film begins and their father and brother away fighting for the doomed Confederacy, the siblings exist in uneasy isolation with each other and with Mad. They are alone but know that danger could come at any moment. It is when Augusta ventures outside the confines of home in a desperate bid to obtain medical supplies to treat her sister's infection (the result of a raccoon bite) that this restive space is shattered. A few miles away at a local saloon, she encounters Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller), two scouts riding ahead of Sherman's rapidly approaching army. Nominally charged with foraging for supplies and rounding up deserters, these two "boomers" really just lay waste to whatever and whomever they come across. Like manifestations of the Freudian id, or perhaps just Sherman's army in microcosm, they satisfy their diabolical predilections for rape, murder, and arson with a willful abandon. Following her brief, near fatal confrontation, Augusta manages to escape, only for Moses and Henry to track her back home. At nightfall of the following day, they lay siege to the farmstead intent on the worst kinds of violence. With no other choice, and no help coming, Augusta, Mad, and Louise determine to defend their home and each other.

Though largely contained within this single location and with only a small number of characters, The Keeping Room's ostensibly simple premise actually belies a number of thematic complexities, including a critical reflection of and rumination on the traditional Western's engagement with the cultural politics of Hollywood's classical narrative paradigm. This is to say, an ideological structuring of gendered and racial identities predicated on white male supremacy, a depiction of violent masculinities as heroic, and a celebration of the paternal family unit as social ideal. The Keeping Room deploys an intriguing melange of genre elements and tropes to develop a counter-narrative to both the traditional Western and the classical paradigm, one that exploits the cultural connotations of its geo-historical setting to address issues of gender, race, and male (sexual) violence from an avowedly female perspective. The film also uses the interracial composition of its trio of female characters to engage with intersectional feminist concerns. The result is a work of defamiliarization that challenges the classical paradigm in its attempts to disavow, conceal, and repress the reality of these issues as part of a past unpalatable to a popular-cultural imaginary attracted to a more heroic version of its own history.

Before engaging directly with The Keeping Room's critical-, or, counter-ideological capacity, it is important to consider how the Western engages with this historical narrative and how its associated values have commanded ideological belief in America for so long and on such a mass scale. …

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