The Keeping Room has large things to say about war, and how war fosters rape and dehumanization. This timely message is wielded in a blunt-force manner—so blunt that the idea becomes unintentionally sensationalized. We are in the South in 1865, as General Sherman scorches the surviving landscapes of the Civil War. Two sisters, Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit), remain at an isolated farmhouse—not a plantation, but not a shack, either—along with a woman they formerly treated as property, Mad (Muna Otaru). Like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, they wear their now-shabby dresses and till the soil. The crux of the movie is what happens when two moonshine-swilling Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) arrive, with rape and murder on their animalistic minds.
It begins as a science thriller: Researchers narrow in on absolute proof that the eye evolved in nature. Such confirmation would give the lie to creationists who sometimes use the complexity of the eye as evidence for an “intelligent designer,” which is another way of saying God. Alas, I Origins has more than science on its mind—it wants to pick fruit from The Tree of Life and other such exercises in magical hugger-mugger.
Molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt, from Last Days) and his gifted intern Karen (Brit Marling) do the lab work; meanwhile, the supremely rational Ian indulges in a whirlwind affair with exotic Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). She has uniquely patterned eyes, European manners, and beaucoup de hotness, so he is forgiven for tossing aside his usual scholarly method.
It’s almost too tempting to compare Greta Gerwig and Brit Marling, indie-bred actresses who also occasionally write their own movies. Both are smart, pretty, and rising fast. But where Gerwig, the star of Frances Ha, can tap a loosey-goosey and expertly comic side, Marling is serious enough to be unnerving. And thus far, this eerily focused actress has chosen exceptionally somber material. She co-wrote and starred in Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. Those films are unusual numbers, thoughtful and ambitious if not completely realized, and Marling’s enigmatic performances are part of their effect.
Marling teams once more with Sound of My Voice director Zal Batmanglij for The East, another intense piece that operates on a bigger scale. (“Bigger scale” must be contractually guaranteed when you add Ridley and Tony Scott as producers.) Things are quite grim again. Hired by a private intelligence agency to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group called The East, Sarah (Marling) rolls into the unwashed ranks of these self-styled environmental avengers.