Let’s set the scene: A stranger comes to town. The townspeople don’t trust him, but soon find out he’s just what they needed. He saves the day and rides off into the sunset.
That’s the basic plot summary for many a western film, but a new movie turns that plot on its head.
“The Keeping Room” is the first film by screenwriter Julia Hart. The most obvious difference between it and the classic western film? It stars women, front and center.
The film, set toward the end of the Civil War, is about three women trapped in their home by renegade soldiers. The men of the house have been gone for a long time, and two sisters and their former slave woman are left to defend themselves.
The idea for the story came to former high school English teacher Julia Hart during a visit to see family friends in the South.
“They told us the story, the myth, that came with the house when they bought it,” she says “Which was that there were two unmarked graves of Union soldiers in the goat field. And I thought that was fascinating because the women who were in the house at the time would have been who would put those men there.”
Hart says she worked backwards from there to find the story. She says she thought about what those women would have had to do, and what they would have gone through for the story to end at two unmarked graves.
The end result is a film that’s reflective of two genres Hart says she has always been drawn to: horror and western. But it’s not the type of Western we’re used to.
“The ‘western’ is this idea of this like brooding, lone male with this dark past who is enacting revenge of some kind,” Hart says. “I wanted to see the woman be more than the damsel in distress or sidekick. So now we have the woman literally pushing open the saloon doors and walking in and the women literally rescuing each other and themselves.”
And that is no side note about this film. Hart says she’s deliberately setting out to tell stories about women.
“It’s a funny question to me because it’s like, ‘Of course I am because who else is?'” she says. “There are so few women writers and directors in our industry telling females stories that of course I’m going to and also to be quite honest I find stories about men to be boring at this point. I mean, I feel like we’ve told them all.”
But Hart says it’s not just gender roles that she wanted to challenge in “The Keeping Room” – it’s also racial divisions. She says it’s the most important thing about the movie to her.
“I really wanted to explore what could happen between a white woman and a black woman at that time if the societal structure they had been conditioned under disappeared like, literally, before their eyes.”
“The Keeping Room” is opening in theaters over the next two months.