A potentially gripping story of empowerment through armed resistance is almost totally undermined by studied, self-conscious storytelling in "The Keeping Room," a handsomely mounted but frustratingly mannered period drama that, in addition to its many other problems, ends just when things appear to be getting really interesting.
Working from Julia Hart's 2012 Black List screenplay about three Southern women — two sisters and their loyal but not entirely subservient slave — who must defend themselves against two brutish Union Army scouts during the waning days of the Civil War, director Daniel Barber ("Harry Brown") devotes entirely too much time to a languidly paced buildup that is heavy on portentous atmospherics, mumbled dialogue and aggressively striking visuals. The violent payoff arrives much too late to provide satisfying catharsis.
Barber employed a similarly elliptical approach to narrative in "The Tonto Woman," his 2008 Oscar-nominated short — based on an Elmore Leonard short story — about a Mexican horse thief drawn to a white woman who, after being freed from captivity by Indians, has been ostracized from polite society. Alas, what might be attention-grabbing and mood-sustaining in a 35-minute short can come off as intolerably tedious in a 95-minute feature.
Things do start off with a bang — literally — as rogue Yankees Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) dispose of two captives and an unfortunate witness while cutting a bloody swath through rural South Carolina in advance of Gen. William Sherman's oncoming Union forces.
But then the scene shifts to a family farm where the womenfolk have been left to fend for themselves while the men are off fighting for the Confederacy. Augusta (Brit Marling) has steeled herself to the day-to-day grind of tilling the fields and maintaining the homestead, relying the help of Mad (Muna Otaru), a dutiful slave she has begun to accept as a near-equal. Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), Augusta's teenage sister, sounds and behaves like a spoiled brat.
When Louise is bitten by a raccoon while recklessly wandering through the woods, it's up to Augusta to seek medicine from the few folks remaining in what's left of a nearby town. Unfortunately, the two Yankees already have arrived there. Even more unfortunately, Moses immediately takes a shine to the feisty Southern woman. That she keeps him at bay with a rifle only intensifies his desire.
One thing leads to another — very slowly — until, eventually, Moses and Henry show up at Augusta's farm with rape and pillaging on their mind. To Barber's credit, that's when he starts to ratchet up the suspense in earnest, amping the mounting dread in a manner that suggests a better-than-average horror movie — or the slow-burn builds to violence in Barber's debut feature, "Harry Brown."
Trouble is, during the downtime between eruptions of violence, characters are given to speaking dialogue that all too obviously sounds like it was written by someone else a long time ago, not uttered extemporaneously on the spot. There is an especially jarring faux-poetic moment when the uneducated Mad waxes eloquent about the malevolent male "demons" who trouble women. It speaks volumes about Muna Ortaru's persuasiveness as an actor that Mad's words are improbably affecting, if not entirely convincing.
Marling ably conveys the right measures of terror and determination, willed strength and weary resignation, and hits the right notes with Worthington to indicate the gradual establishment of grudging respect, or something like it, between their characters. Steinfeld and Soller are at their best during a genuinely creepy standoff that ends violently.
"The Keeping Room" — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence including a sexual assault)
Running time: 1:35
Opens: Friday at at Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., www.facets.org