Most historical war dramas occur in male-only spheres, but Daniel Barber’s film places the viewer in an overlooked corner of the Civil War — in this case, a rural Southern homefront defended only by women. Property is to be protected, of course, but what gives the film its frisson is the omnipresent threat of sexual violence. (The opening scene clearly establishes that rape is a matter-of-fact spoil of war for some men.)
In this taut drama, two sisters (Brit Marling and Hailie Steinfeld) and their African-American slave (Muna Otaru) hole up in the family home; the men are dead or otherwise lost, food is scarce and the Union Army is approaching. Already, circumstances have forced the women to act outside the norm — the “slave” is more compadre than servant, and none of the women are above killing. After a slow but tense build-up, most of the drama is structured as a home invasion. The conclusion is open-ended but for its truths: War precipitates a hellish breakdown of society’s norms, and few are more vulnerable in it than women.