In the dying days of the Civil War, as Sherman’s troops burn and pillage their way across the American South, three women steel themselves for an onslaught that will surely be brutal.
Their leader, Augusta, figured out long ago that the father who left to fight in the war wasn’t coming back. Now it’s on her to defend the South Carolina homestead from marauding Union scouts, and to protect the family she has left—petulant little sis Louise and their longtime slave, Mad.
“You can’t really conceive of women defending themselves in this way until you see it onscreen and you think, oh yes, anything is possible,” says Brit Marling, who plays the wild-haired heroine Augusta in The Keeping Room, which opens this month with the distinction of being what might just be cinema’s first feminist Civil War action thriller.
Scripted by Julia Hart, The Keeping Room made it to the Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in 2012. Unlike most Westerns, this one is also a home(stead) invasion flick—and a rare war film that puts women front and center.
“The idea of women coming together and making a tribe and finding safety in each other is not something you see all the time,” marveled Marling, who’s bringing The Keeping Room to Austin’s Fantastic Fest before the film opens Friday in limited release. “I think you leave the theater thinking about your own female friendships, the sisterhood you have with other women, and what an important space that is.”
Marling plays Augusta like an Antebellum Ellen Ripley, a heroine forced by horrifying circumstance to dig deep and find grit within. “It’s an action movie where all the action is possible, which is so rare in the age of all these special effects,” Marling said, excitedly. “People jumping off of a semi truck on the freeway off of an overpass! Most action movies are fantasies. This is an action movie that isn’t a fantasy, everything is possible.”
“There isn’t that much written about the female and the civilian experience during the war,” said Marling, who began researching women of the time when she got the role—only to find that there wasn’t much evidence in existence.
“There are letters and snatches of things here and there but it’s largely undocumented in history,” she said. “That’s part of why this film is so, I think, shocking. We’re so used to seeing the battlefront and hearing stories of men at war, and we don’t ever devote the cinematic space to the lives of women in the war, and what happens when the war comes to them.”
As The Keeping Room opens, circumstance has forced Augusta and Mad to negotiate new terms of coexistence out of their master-slave roots. Two explosive scenes test the boundaries of their tentative treaty: In one, Augusta diffuses a racially charged tiff between her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad (Muna Otaru) with a resolute, “We’re all niggers now.”
Soon after, she becomes enraged when Louise is injured. She lashes out at the former slave, slapping her in a moment that shocks all three women. When Mad rears back and returns the blow, it’s one of the film’s most satisfying—and loaded—moments.
“Obviously it’s really challenging—it’s really challenging—to read, and then to act, and then to later watch what that time period was like,” recalled Marling. “And Muna Otaru, this is the first film that she’s done, is so gifted. She’s just a tremendous performer. I think we were both very intimidated by some of the scenes and the place we had to arrive at in some of these scenes.”
As for the slap, “We had two women exerting violence against each other, which is really hard and doesn’t happen that often,” Marling said. “The moment Daniel called, ‘Cut,’ we both retreated to different sides of the field and sat down and wept. I think when we realized that we were both doing that we went and found each other and wept some more.”
“You know, you’re trying to keep it together in the shooting but the truth is that in these moments, you can’t come apart. You want to, but you can’t. So it was in the in-between moments that I think we really caught each other. It’s uncommon for a movie to explore some really intense stuff, and in an unflinching way.”
After turning down a job offer from Goldman Sachs, the Arbitrage star launched her career acting in films she also co-wrote, working frequently with college pals-turned-collaborators Mike Cahill (Another Earth) and Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice, The East).
Together the old Georgetown alums have been developing their own new brand of sci-fi, which Marling and Batmanglij are now channeling into The OA, a “mind-bending” original series for Netflix.
For the emotional demands of The Keeping Room, however, Marling had to compartmentalize her actorly identity from the writer within.
“When you write something and I think when you’re directing it, things are in your mind—gender politics and race politics, where a film sits in the canon of other films,” she explained.
“It’s funny that as an actor when you pick up a script, you kind of have to pick it up like a child, in the way that children don’t know any constructs yet. Young kids have maybe intuited, but they don’t know gender, they don’t know race until these things are taught to them by living in society where there are these sort of arbitrary constructs about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. As an actor your job is to pick up the script like a child and look at it wholeheartedly.”