It’s been said that the Western was the superhero movie of its day: the morality tales that captured the hearts and minds of not just America but the entire world, the larger-than-life heroes that inspired people to be and do something great, the genre for which the world had a seemingly endless appetite–oh, and like superhero movies today, they more or less ignored women entirely, unless they were there to be saved or slapped.
That’s something that Brit Marling, who stars in the pseudo-Western (it has all the trappings of the genre, but actually takes place in Georgia) The Keeping Room, had very much in mind when she read the Blacklist-awarded script by Julia Hart the first time.
“This movie very literally turns things around–‘guy walks into a saloon’ becomes ‘girl walks into a saloon,’” Marling says. “And since the Western is such a big part of the iconic American mythology, it’s really cool to rewrite that mythology, and put the female experience in it.”
The film takes place in Georgia at the end of the Civil War, and centers around Marling’s character, Augusta, along with her sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and a former slave who’s now a free woman (Muna Otaru). When Steinfeld’s character falls sick, Augusta has to try to track down some medicine–which sets on the trail of some Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) who are advance scouts in the middle of carrying out some of the more brutal parts of Sherman’s March. Which makes The Keeping Room something of a twofer: It’s a Civil War-era film built around the horses, hats, dusters, and guns of the Western, and it’s also a home invasion thriller set in a time and place where “home invasion” was a very real possibility for a group of young women in the defeated South.
Neither of those genres has historically been all that good at presenting female characters as fully developed, fleshed-out people, and The Keeping Room–written by Hart, built around Marling, and directed by Daniel Barber–focuses intently on telling a story that fully invests in showing what those settings were like for women. Filling in a historically thin gap in cinematic history is a tall order, but Marling and Hart saw it as an opportunity–and they had a few ideas about how to do it.
The Keeping Roomisn’t the first movie to attempt to put women into a Western-like setting. And while some recent films, like Kelly Reichardt’s Michelle Williams-led Meek’s Cutoff, have been very successful at doing that, the history is usually a bit goofier: Take the 1994 Drew Barrymore/Andie MacDowell vehicle Bad Girls, for example (or better yet, don’t).
Those movies tend to fail because they just gender-swap the characters and archetypes that you usually see in a standard Western, and that was something Hart was very determined to avoid when conceiving the script for The Keeping Room.
“In a lot of ways, we’re running out of stories,” she says. “In a lot of ways, we’re just telling the same stories over and over again, and I think all we really have, in terms of originality, is our ability to tell them from a different perspective–so I wanted to take what are, in some cases, these cliches and these tropes of the genres, and not just put women in them, but turn them into female stories. I don’t think you succeed in a female-driven project if you’re just dropping a woman into a role that is usually inhabited by a man. You have to change the entire structure and style within that world to be female, for it to be believable that this is a real woman who is existing in that space.”
Without that, Hart says, “they feel cheesier. They feel dishonest.” They feel, in other words, like Bad Girls or Bandidas or any of the female-fronted Westerns that hover in the “rotten” range on critical aggregators that no one remembers fondly.
When asked how she found the honesty in The Keeping Room, Hart points to something very specific. She points to the fact that Brit Marling learned to chop wood.
“You have to be really conscious of what makes a woman a woman,” she says. “What’s so incredible about Brit’s performance is that she is actually doing all of those things. It’s not a movie about a woman who somehow miraculously pops into a latex superhero suit and drop-kicks 40 assassins. It’s a real woman, Brit Marling, this actress, actually chopping that wood, and actually riding that horse, and actually loading and firing that gun, and actually running through the woods.”
All of those things presented some unique challenges for Marling, but they enabled her to create the character of Augusta with real authenticity–and to work in a way that she had never had the opportunity to before.
“It’s really cool to design a character from the body, and to come into the inside. Normally when I’m preparing for a part, it’s coming from feeling and instinct, and you find the physical representation of that later,” Marling says. “But it’s awesome to design it from the other way around–to learn how horseback riding for four or five hours a day changes your body, and then to see how you feel in that new body, and to let the character come out of that.”
And the wood-chopping, specifically, taught her a lot about who Augusta was. “That took a long time to get good at. You really have to hit on the right sweet spot in the wood so it doesn’t crack in half,” Marling recalls. “I would go to set early and just be out back chopping wood until my blisters were breaking open on my hand. The physicality helped me understand the dire stakes in every moment.”
Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru all play strong female characters in The Keeping Room–but they don’t play, like, “Strong Female Characters” in the Angelina Jolie-as-Tomb Raider sense, where their strength is derived, at least in part, from the improbability of their actions. Instead, they find their strength in ways that are more human: Otaru and Steinfeld’s characters grow stronger by opening up about the monsters they’ve encountered in their lives, and Marling’s Augusta displays her strength not because she’s never scared, but because of how she reacts when she is.
Watching The Keeping Room, it can be easy to fail to recognize that what we’re seeing is strength in those scenes, simply because that’s not what we usually call it when we see those things on screen. And for Hart, who wrote a genre film that is at least as likely to play to audiences full of men who’ve seen plenty of schlocky home-invasion thrillers as it is to play to rooms full of women who are interested in the exploration of femininity in wartime, pushing against those expectations was one of the thrills of creating the script.
“We feel, as a culture, like a strong female character doesn’t cry, or, like, she gets hurt and then brushes it off,” Hart says. “From my experience, we are emotional, and we feel things very deeply, and I think it’s really interesting to not be afraid to portray that in an action-thriller. I think a woman showing her emotions is strength. We need to move away from this idea that being strong as women means being impervious, or stoic, or superhero-like–instead, it should actually mean being real, and messy, and feminine, and not being afraid of that. That, to me, is the real strength.”
Marling’s career has been marked by bold choices. She usually plays leads–in well-received, vaguely fantastical films like Another Earth, The East, and Sound of My Voice, all of which she has a writing credit on–but also takes small parts in projects from directors like Robert Redford, or as a guest star on an episode of Community. Few actresses have the opportunity to focus almost exclusively on work that they connect to so strongly, but Marling made the decision to do that very pointedly.
“When I first came out to L.A. and was interested in acting, in the early days of doing that, the only things I could get in to read for were the classic horror films. It never sat well with me to play a girl who is fleeing from violence in the classic home-invasion story, and the question is, which one of the six girls will survive?” Marling laughs. “It was really cool to do something that turned that on its head.”
Turning things on their head seems to have been a theme for both the film’s writer and its star. And if that alienates some viewers–especially men who aren’t used to seeing these themes, or these viewpoints, introduced in genres that have typically been about masculinity–that’s something that Hart can live with.
“The male experience of this film has been fascinating to me, because the men who love it are really passionate about it–and then the men who don’t like it really, really hate it,” she says. “For the most part, I think women have really taken to it. It’s been really fascinating watching that. I think it’s good to challenge standards and push people, even within something that they typically like. To do something different and make them see how they feel about that, I think, is the point of all of this. I guess some people want to keep giving people the same thing over and over again, but I certainly don’t.”