“The Keeping Room” is not only a Western set in the South. It’s a Western written by and starring women. Brit Marling plays Augusta, who lives on a remote farm on the Confederate side in the waning days of the Civil War. She, her sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and their house slave (Muna Otaru) all find themselves banding together when they’re hounded by a pair of psychotic Union solders (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller). Getting a period film centered around women isn’t an easy one to get financed, as Marling and the film’s writer, Julia Hart, said as we sat down in advance of the film’s theatrical release. But it’s important to stay true, and to make a thriller that doesn’t subscribe to traditional and often patriarchal definitions of “strong female characters.”
There are subtle differences between the strong female characters in “The Keeping Room” and what typically pass for strong female characters elsewhere. They aren’t just men with their genders switched.
Brit Marling: We talked about that a lot together: what does it mean to be strong as a woman? There’s this idea of a strong female character just aping male characteristics or qualities that are considered strong. That’s different from the way women are strong. I think we’re still figuring out the language of how to talk about this. The film is about the way women work together. There isn’t a single hero or protagonist. It’s about the three of them surviving because of their ability to connect by telling stories to each other. That’s an amazing thing to smuggle across in an action movie. All this stuff is happening and it’s terrifying and it’s thrilling, then all of a sudden you’re in this grounded moment and the girls are talking to each other about their lives. That’s preparing them for the next stage of action. That’s a uniquely feminine idea.
Julia Hart: There’s also the virtue of having women do things. Brit as a woman is physically doing everything in the movie. A lot of times when we have strong female characters they’re doing things that are physically impossible for a woman to do.
Marling: And [Augusta] is not a particularly strong woman. It’s not like I’m on the wrestling team and can bench press 350 pounds. Daniel [Barber, the director] was talking about us losing some weight and really embodying the quality of these girls who have been starving. And they’re also doing these crazy physical things: farming, hunting, chopping wood, horseback riding. By the time we came to shoot I felt like a wire, just a slip of a human. Trying to find strength in that made everything really real. There’s a scene where I have to dive on the floor to dodge a spray of bullets. Those wounds on my arm were real wounds. They weren’t fake. These things are really happening. You feel it.
And chopping wood is really, surprisingly hard.
Marling: It took me a long time. You have to hit it in the sweet spot, and if you don’t it hurts, because it reverberates back through your arm. There’s something martial arts about it. You have to drop into a zen zone. At the end of the day my hands would be caked with dirt and bloody with blisters from holding the reins and chopping wood. I’d come back to the trailer and soak my hands in a thing of water, with a s—-eating grin on my face that I had survived the day.