The Keeping Room is a minimal film. Julia Hart’s screenplay is quick and efficient, the performances are understated, and the plot focuses on three women’s struggle for survival in a time when very few resources were available to them. That’s not to say that it’s in any way a minor film, just that it makes the most of very sparse material. It’s something that The Keeping Room star Brit Marling notes as making the narrative all the more dramatic.
“It leaves the realm of fantasy with a woman tied to a chair in a bodysuit just drop-kicking 47 assassins,” Marling tells Bustle, “And it enters the realm of reality, which is three girls defending their home.”
The Keeping Room, out in limited release on Sept. 25, takes place during The Civil War, a period not exactly known for its female empowerment. War narratives — both film and the historical record — are often told from the male perspective. Marling’s film, though, examines what happens when the “horrific violence of war comes home to the civilian space," she says, where women, too, are deeply affected. To play the part of Augusta, who Marling calls a "new female action hero," the actress underwent major challenges, both mentally and physically.
“Four hours a day on a horse and being broken down by it in the sun and sweating,” Marling recalls. The "rigor of the training" — The Keeping Room used no stunt doubles — contributed to her understanding of where Augusta came from, and the hardships she faced; despite performing traditionally male tasks on the plantation like chopping wood and hunting in the forest (though the resources are rapidly waning), “She doesn’t have a man’s body."
“There’s a real ferocity to her,” Marling says, which ends up serving Augusta well when a pair of Union soldiers, part of the rapidly approaching army, arrive at the sisters’ plantation intent on causing harm.
“She’s sort of left to be both the woman and the man of the house," the 32-year-old actress says.
Augusta and her sister Louise keep their hair long and loose and continues to wear dresses, “all these other vestiges of femininity in a time that basically doesn’t have any room for the feminine anymore,” Marling says. “War and aggression and violence have sort of cannibalized everything.”
The role of Augusta was a new type of part for the actress; Marling says that she seeks out original experiences in the films she picks for herself. (Or writes for herself — she’s one of a small number of female actor-writers who, when confronted with a dearth of desirable roles, create them for themselves; she co-wrote 2011's acclaimed Another Earth, among other films.)
“When I read other people’s work, it’s a feeling of, oh, I never could have come up with that,” Marling says. “My imagination never would have gone to that place.”
Though Marling and others have made broad strides towards affirming that female-fronted, -written, and -directed films can receive both critical and popular acclaim, the actress explains that “there’s still a lot to be done.”
"[The audience is] so hungry for exploring relationships between women,” says Marling.
Films like The Keeping Room are at the forefront of change. The movie, directed by Daniel Barber and written by Julia Hart, blends cues towards masculinity and femininity without fully adhering to either side of the dichotomy. It plays on assumptions about the traditionally masculine genres of horror and Western, reminding viewers that women, too, can make and star in films of those nature.
“The more women are writing and directing and producing, the more these stories naturally find homes and find purchase,” Marling says.
Still, she adds, “I think we still just don’t really know what the female narrative looks like, exactly. I think we’re still used to kind of plug women into sort of traditional structures for a male protagonist’s story.”
Yet not this movie. In the bold, original The Keeping Room, it's just three women, no frills, staking their claim and defending their territory against the threat of outsiders.
Images: Drafthouse Films