If Brit Marling’s performances over the last four years needed to be described in two words, they would be unguarded and unconventional. It’s a fate assured for anyone that has possibly become the spectre of post-financial crisis, do-it-yourself independent filmmaking, like she has. She’s created her own work for herself from the very beginning, having indeed full autonomy over her characters and career. It’s rare that actors get to have this level of connection to their work, that allows them to fully immerse themselves in the story they’re telling. Sure, they think and research and write intricate personal histories for their characters, but what they come up with will always be a secondary perception of what was written on the page, an interpretation of what the writer truly meant. But for Marling, there has largely been no intermediary between writer and actor. The writer of her own backstory, the keeper of the emotional meaning in her characters, there is no grey area between writing and performance. And that is where Marling thrives.
In the film, Marling plays Augusta, a young woman in the southern United States in the dying days of the Civil War. She’s been left to care for the family farm along with her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and slave Mad (Muna Otaru) as all the men have left to go fight in the war, presumably never to return. It’s a fact that becomes more and more apparent as the film wears on, as the days go by and the farm remains eerily quiet, feeling like the end of the world. Augusta, Louise, and Mad go about their work, keeping the farm in shape, with tensions occasionally rising between Louise and Mad, but largely without incident. It’s summer. They work, they talk, they relax. But all the while, the horizon, littered with trees, begins to feel less like a shield from the outside world than it does a trap. The war is coming to them, in the form of two rogue Yankee soldiers (Sam Worthington, still doing a mildly Australian accent; and Kyle Soller) looking for a fight.But while the horrors of war are rightfully shown frequently through its direct combatants, mostly commonly men, little thought is ever given to those on the other side of the coin, particularly those where the war is brought to their doorstep. Women are left home to pick up the pieces, dealing with their own set of terror, of their spouse returning a completely different person, or the fight indeed being brought to them. Their viewpoints are rarely considered as valuable, instead sacrificed yet again for the masculine. Writer Julia Hart has taken a well-worn context and spun it into new narrative conventions of a home invasion thriller and action film that boasts more of an emotional centre and impact than many that pass through multiplexes. The unconventional presentation of the narrative, an intriguing and confident blend of genres, is what makes the film an engaging watch even in its less successful, more expository and predictable moments. Director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) makes good work of Hart’s script, lifting it up off the page, maintaining the full visceral impact of what’s on screen, directing the action scenes with a kinetic energy, and the dialogue-driven scenes in a serene, yet ominous fashion.