By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Set in “The American South, 1865”, Daniel Barber’s pompous and lifeless The Keeping Room opens with a quote from the Civil War’s rampaging General Sherman: “War is cruelty.” Under Barber’s heavyhanded direction, it’s also tedious and inert, as the film halfheartedly stokes a glacial, almost imperceptibly slow burn that never gives off any heat. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld play sisters living a meager, man-less existence with their black servant (Muna Otaru), while a couple of Union soldiers played by Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller indiscriminately rape and pillage a path towards an inevitable standoff. The Julia Hart script strives to introduce feminist elements into a revenge genre text, but Ms. 45 it is not – this is indulgent, draggy, ponderous stuff, with some risible attempts at building suspense and a litany of squandered opportunities. None of the key performances are convincing (Marling especially goes dress-up play-time broad) except for the newcomer Otaru, who gets an excellent scene where she relives a horrifying childhood memory, and explains the film’s inscrutable title. It’s powerful stuff, but hardly worth the effort of slogging through Barber’s morass.