Destroyer Director Karyn Kusama: "It's About Rage"

Photo: Courtesy of Annapurna.
Karyn Kusama likes to joke that she’s always too early to the party. Take Jennifer’s Body, the director’s 2009 film starring Megan Fox as a flesh-eating zombie who feasts on men who have wronged her. At the time, the film was dismissed as inconsequential — Roger Ebert famously called it “Twilight for boys.” But in 2018, that female anger — that rage at being constantly objectified, judged and cast aside — feels more urgent than ever.
Long before the reckoning and cultural conversations that pushed many women to grapple with the feelings of suppressed bitterness and resentment at the systemic imbalances at work in our society, Kusama was playing out that dynamic onscreen.
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Women’s anger is a theme that permeates the entirety of Kusama’s oeuvre. Her acclaimed 2000 feature debut, Girlfight, starred a then-undiscovered Michelle Rodriguez as a Brooklyn teenager channeling her aggression and rage into boxing. 2005’s Aeon Flux saw Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron fighting back against an authoritarian government. Even 2015’s The Invitation, a horror film about a couple who invite the wife’s ex-husband over for dinner, is steeped in acrimony and grief.
But Destroyer, Kusama’s latest film starring Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, a Los Angeles cop hell-bent on revenge, takes things a step further. This character isn’t content with channeling her fury into a single-minded purpose or quest. Her anger is messy — all-consuming — poisoning her relationships with herself and others. It’s a rage that cannot, and will not be contained. And it’s one that Kusama understands well.
Refinery29: The conversation about this movie have been very focused on the idea that Nicole Kidman’s character is the kind of anti-hero usually played by men, an idea you’ve kind of been rejecting in interviews leading up to release. What has surprised you most about the attitudes and dialogues towards Destroyer?
Karyn Kusama: “I am struck by this concept that there is space that men occupy, and space that women occupy, and I never imagined ‘Oh, let’s take this female character and have her occupy male space.’ I said, ‘Let’s have a female character occupy space.’ So, I get really frustrated by this idea that these characters are reserved for men, as if it’s their destiny or creative privilege, and that somehow it’s an extra creative privilege for a woman to get a role that should be played by a man or would ordinarily be played by a man. That implies that there’s so many great roles for men, and I actually don’t see them. I don’t feel like I see humanity represented very well in general, in movies — particularly genre movies.”
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To a certain extent, talking about things that way implies that it’s unusual for women to be in these situations. But obviously, there are women cops. Do you think the film industry is caught up in a gender struggle that the rest of the world has moved past?
“I think it’s about rage. What is she so mad about? Why does she lash out? Why is she so physically violent? The movie this is most related to of my work is Girlfight, and perhaps, one of the things that animates me is the desire to work out some of the conflicts I have about violent women, or women capable of violence. And so, I’m having complicated experiences with answering these questions about gender, because in some respect I’m asking myself, ‘Are men being asked to interrogate themselves in this way? And is this part of the problem? That women keep having to shoulder the burden of answering for their work, when I think men so frequently don’t get confronted on that stuff?’”
But should they be asked those questions?
“I suppose, but I’m not sure. It’s a question of how we look at humanity. Part of me would love to have read the original press leading up to the release of Seven. Was David Fincher interrogated about his attitudes about humanity, given the misanthropic world view largely held by John Doe — who, ultimately in being named John Doe is kind of like a stand-in for men in general? Was he asked simply about the work: ‘How did you achieve this look? Tell us about that action sequence,’ or the larger ideas? And I don’t doubt he would acquit himself very well in explaining where he came from in approaching the material, but I just wonder if identity, and defining your identity within your work, and as an aesthetic factor — I wonder if men get asked those questions as frequently.”
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Does the fact that you’re being asked this question indicate to you that the way we engage with movies about women has changed?
“There’s now a new attention paid to the deprivation we’ve been feeling. I think it means that now we can kind of acknowledge the hunger we have to see women represented in kaleidoscopic ways on film or in television. That helps understand that the demand has always been there, and now we’re just finally experiencing some feedback that’s going to be positive in terms of getting more to see that’s interesting.”
Before I saw the movie, I’d heard so much about Nicole Kidman’s makeup, and her transformation into this crusty, wrinkled, damaged woman. But what really struck me while watching was how physical her performance is — the makeup is kind of window dressing. What surprised you most about her, and what went into casting her for this role?
“She really played it like this wounded cowboy, and there was something about the walk. She absorbs things kind of invisibly. I had made this comment that I personally go through these periods in my life where people ask me if I’m limping for a reason. People point it out, and it’s kind of a weird thing, but I realize that there are times where I think I hold some kind of tension, pain, trauma, and it just shows up in my walk. I mentioned that to her very offhandedly because she’s so statuesque; her posture is really good. And she just took it in. She asked for heavy boots, she asked for stuff that created the heaviness of the character — she just demanded that we up our game to meet her. Seeing that is very inspiring, because you’re seeing a woman command her greatness. Think of how many women do that daily, that just go unseen, unheard, unacknowledged.”
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For a woman over 40, that’s even more rare.
“It is really rare to hear a woman sit in [interviews] and repeat ‘I’m 51 years old’ over, and over again. [She’s] making it sound so cool, and that’s exactly what it should be. Like, ‘I’m still here, I’m doing the kind of work that I want to do, and I might be doing the best work of my life.’ That’s so great. “
I want to talk about the relationship between Erin and her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). We’ve seen a lot of really complex depictions of motherhood this year, from Hereditary to Roma. What did you want to say about being a mom? Or being a daughter?
“I thought there was something really key in the moment where we first introduce Erin’s ex, and basically Scoot McNairy’s character says, ‘Who’s going to talk to her? How are we going to deal with this now that she’s essentially seeing a 24-year-old creep?’ And Erin’s immediate response is ‘I don’t have a lot of time for her issues right now.” How many parents feel like they don’t have the time to offer their children guidance, affection, [and have] carefully considered walking through into adulthood with them? I’m not particularly sympathetic to it, but I understand it. There are plenty of times in all of our lives where we felt like our parents didn’t have the time. There’s something about women not having been mothered themselves, not necessarily being great at being mothers. Because it exposes such vulnerabilities, so much terror. For me, I would imagine that there’s a powerful element of fantasy in having a parent say: ‘All these years that I’ve made your life kind of difficult, I was the one at fault.’ There was something powerful about her taking responsibility in front of her 16-year-old daughter. “
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I found it really striking when she says ‘I know what it is to grow up angry.’ Going back to that idea of female rage — I’ve heard male characters say similar things over the years. Guys are allowed to be mad, and to grow up mad, but we rarely see that for women.
“It was such a refreshing moment for her to give access to us, the audience, but obviously to Shelby. To feel like, as much as she’s reaching out and trying to connect, she’s really trying to reveal herself. Somehow it took her this long to say, ‘I’m just so fucking mad.’ I get it.”
Do you think your interpretation, or working out of angry women has changed over the years? This film seems to be the most explicit expression of ‘I’m really fucking mad.’ Jennifer’s Body was really rage-y, but this is more intense. In a way, it mirrors the time we’re in.
“We’re all really mad. I’m trying to figure out what is useful, what is constructive about rage, what can be done with our fury that becomes interesting, transformative, and effective toward being seen and heard. That’s what’s missing so frequently, and it’s a big part of why we feel so enraged. I know I’m one of many women who feel a constant sense of low-grade fury. We’re not imagined as full humans, so we’re always this sort of inconvenience on a cosmic, spiritual level that just needs to be dealt with and controlled. There’s something about Erin Bell’s inability to be controlled that I found really appealing. Yeah, she’s a difficult character and she makes a lot of mistakes, but I love that about her.”
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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