Unsung Auteurs: Karyn Kusama

July 21, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: edgy, gritty specialist Karyn Kusama, who directed Destroyer and Girlfight.

Bouncing back and course-correcting a film career after a major cinematic disaster can be difficult for a director. Just ask Michael Lehmann (Hudson Hawk), Richard Kelly (Southland Tales), Roger Christian (Battlefield Earth) or the litany of other filmmakers who never really recovered after delivering big budget, high profile duds. Karyn Kusama could have been another director to add to that list, but thankfully after being burnt on the highly anticipated 2005 sci-fi epic Aeon Flux, the filmmaker eventually returned to her gritty, more modestly budgeted roots, and has stayed there ever since, with profoundly impressive and far more in-character results.

Kusama was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Haruo Kusama, a Japanese child psychiatrist and Susan McGuire, an educational psychiatrist. In 1990, she earned a BFA in Film & TV from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, where she also won a special prize for her eye-catching short film Sleeping Beauties. Though she worked in documentary filmmaking and on various independent music videos, it was Kusama’s temporary job as a nanny that would prove the most fortuitous, with the nascent director here meeting indie film legend John Sayles (Matewan, Eight Men Out), who recognised Kusama’s talent and hired her as an assistant on his films Lone Star, Men With Guns and Limbo. While working for Sayles and doing boxing training in a Brooklyn gym, Kusama came up with the idea for what would eventually become her striking debut feature.

Karyn Kusama on the set of Girlfight.

Partially funded by John Sayles after various financing options fell apart, 2000’s Girlfight (which feels more like a 1990s indie) instantly announced Kusama as a major talent to watch. Tough, soulful, and bristling with energy and fighting spirit, this impressive low budgeter follows Diana Guzman (a stunning career-making turn from Michelle Rodriguez), a young Latin woman who uses boxing as a means to transcend the difficulties and drudgery of her daily life. Energetic, sensual, sensitive and beautifully made, Girlfight is a real feat of female filmmaking. “There are not enough difficult, complex women on the screen,” Kusama told Bomb upon the release of the film. “The idea that a woman could be emotionally moving and powerful, and in possession of herself and her body, is not something that we see in film because so much of a woman’s physical sense of self when acting seems to be a performance for other people. I wanted to see a woman become physically powerful on that screen.”

An eye-catching indie success, and a big winner at The Sundance Film Festival, the stylish Girlfight saw Kusama hurled into the big time when she was tapped to direct Aeon Flux, a major studio flick based on the cult animation by Peter Chung. A truly awful, horribly muddled mess starring Charlize Theron, the film was rightly hated by its originator. “The movie is a travesty, and seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theatre made me feel helpless, humiliated and sad,” Peter Chung said damningly of the film. Hated by all still to this day (there will be no reappraisal of this dire film), Aeon Flux permanently derailed Kusama’s chances of becoming a more high profile filmmaker. A financial and creative disaster, Aeon Flux likely prevented Kusama from ever helming something on such a big scale again. “Aeon Flux was a huge enough studio movie to completely guarantee that when things went south, they didn’t just go south, they went directly into the bowels of hell,” Kusama told Shock Till You Drop.

Karyn Kusama with Charlize Theron on the set of Aeon Flux.

The sting of the monumental failure of Aeon Flux took a while to wear off, and Kusama didn’t make another film until 2009, when she once again failed to connect with audiences, this time on the horror flick Jennifer’s Body, which was a major critical and box office dud. Unlike Aeon Flux, however, Jennifer’s Body was actually a strangely fascinating affair, and the film is now widely hailed as an important rewrite on the rules of horror cinema. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno) and starring Megan Fox as a demonically possessed boy-eating high schooler, the rudely confrontational Jennifer’s Body has a lot to say about a lot of things, and is no longer the major down-beat in Kusama’s career that it was initially seen to be. “It’s being revisited because it’s really fucking good,” Kusama said at tenth anniversary screening of the film. “It’s exciting for me. Of course the movie has its flaws, and a lot of movies do…most movies do. But I’m really excited by what survives in it, what remains totally bracing and un-PC.”

After two high profile commercial failures, Kusama went quiet for a while (she has often described herself as being in “director jail”), not returning until 2015 with The Invitation. Unlike the director’s previous two efforts, this grim, deeply unsettling horror-thriller was released to little fanfare, but rates as another fine example of Kusama’s gifts as a filmmaker. The Invitation sees Will (Logan Marshall-Green) attending a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). Adding to the supreme sense of unease and discomfort is the party’s venue: Will’s former home, where Eden tried to commit suicide after the death of their son. An intense meditation on grief, pain, trauma and paranoia, the truly haunting and disturbing The Invitation is a fine piece of serious, thoughtful horror cinema which constantly wrong-foots and surprises the audience. “Making the film for a low budget allowed me creative control that I hadn’t had for a while,” Kusama told Roger Ebert of The Invitation. “I had final cut on this film, and I could really engage in it purely for the film itself.”

Karyn Kusama with Nicole Kidman on the set of Destroyer.

Kusama followed The Invitation with episodes for high quality TV series like Masters Of Sex, Billions, Halt And Catch Fire, Chicago Fire and more before making a triumphant return to the big screen with her best film yet: 2018’s Destroyer. Granted a higher profile due to big name leading lady Nicole Kidman (who was robbed of an Oscar nomination), this is a true high water mark of contemporary cop cinema. Grimy, violent, combative, fascinatingly structured and wholly uncompromising, Destroyer is a wild, roaring beast of a film, with Kidman going wildly out on a limb as an emotionally wounded undercover cop tipping into a moral abyss. A true powerhouse of a film, Destroyer didn’t quite get the acclaim and success that it truly deserved. “I was really hoping we feel a totality of character by the end of the film,” Kusama told The Atlantic of her aims for the film. “That the mission of the film could be to slowly draw the audience into a layered and complex tale of crime and crime gone wrong. And that by the end of the film, we actually feel like we have uncovered some degree of the mystery that drives humans.”

Though once again busying herself with episodic television (The Outsider, In Treatment, Yellowjackets), the edgy and uncompromising Karyn Kusama is way too gifted and original a filmmaker to be away from the big screen for too long…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Seijun Suzuki, Albert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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