The Promise of Pain in Karyn Kusama’s Films

© Paramount Pictures

Karyn Kusama’s work spans genres. In her almost 20-year career as a director, she has made a black comedy about a man-eating demon, an emotional sports drama that centers on a teenage girl, a horror movie that turns a dinner party into a nightmare, and a science fiction feature that challenges the idea of what it means to be a person. She has created big-budget studio movies and cheap, independent films. She has worked with veteran actors and unknowns. But in each genre Kusama works in, and no matter who she’s working with, women’s pain drives her narratives.

In her hands, women’s pain can be destructive, motivating, toxic, or cathartic, but it is always taken seriously. In her movies, women lead rebellions, become murderers and mothers, and, sometimes, get the guy. There are no archetypal strong female characters in Kusama’s films; rather, there are women who have their own wants, desires, stories and—maybe most importantly—flaws.

A character in Kusama’s latest feature perhaps best embodies the kind of woman she is drawn to. In The Invitation, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her partner host a dinner party for old friends, who they haven’t seen in years following the death of Eden’s young son. When Eden embraces her friends at the party, she seems calm and renewed for the first time since this tragedy. Her new worldview comes from her participation in a quasi-religious group (also called The Invitation) that has brought her peace. The group tells her that pain is something you can opt out of, and she has chosen to forego it. But as the dinner party continues, the cracks in Eden’s worldview begin to show, and her carefully constructed evening starts to implode, leading to a dazzling, suspenseful finale.

Though Eden isn’t the main character—it’s technically her ex-husband Will, a guest at the party—her inner life becomes the emotional landscape through which the story is told. It’s Eden’s decisions that drive the plot, it’s her emotions that every character reacts to, and it’s her journey that provides the emotional conclusion of the film. Eden is not a good person. She is also not an evil person. She is a woman dealing with grief in the best way she can, and trying to take care of those she loves in a way that makes sense to her, which ends up being terrible for everyone around her.

The Invitation was written by screenwriting team Phil Hay (Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi. When Hay came to Kusama for feedback on the script, Kusama said she felt drawn to the material—and for good reason. Where other, lesser directors use women’s trauma as a plot point to advance another character’s story, Kusama uses women’s pain as a starting point to explore emotions, characters, and larger themes. The Invitation is a prime example of a story that fits into that worldview.

Another is Jennifer’s Body, Kusama’s 2009 black comedy (written by Diablo Cody) in which popular, sexy teen Jennifer (Megan Fox) becomes the victim of a ritual sacrifice gone wrong that turns her into a man-eating demon. The story focuses on Amanda’s best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried), and how she handles the sometimes-toxic relationship with her best friend taking a turn for the worse. It would have been easy to make fun of young women in pain, as so many movies aiming for satire have. Many movie-going audiences wouldn’t have thought twice if the pretty teenage girl was laughed at to serve another character’s development. But Kusama never treats Jennifer or Needy as objects of derision. Rather, she takes their friendship seriously and explores it throughout the film, understanding that a relationship between two teenage girls is worthy of study and recognition.

The humanity Kusama recognizes in her characters spirals out and touches every aspect of her films. It’s clear Kusama values her characters in the way she frames them on camera, often filming close-ups of faces affected by pain. The camera lingers on Eden’s face contorted with grief in The Invitation, and on Jennifer’s face dazed in shock in Jennifer’s Body. In Kusama’s movies, the camera often looks at a character straight on, centered in the frame, as if they are reaching out directly to the audience. It creates intimacy with and empathy for the characters, and it also emphasizes significant moments. For example, in Jennifer’s Body, the camera focuses tightly on Needy when she makes a decision about Jennifer, or feels connected to her. Needy’s relationship with her best friend is the most important thing in her life, and these shots echo that importance, rather than make light of it. By focusing on how her characters feel physically and emotionally, Kusama pays tribute to their struggle.

Kusama is interested in examining the effects of pain, rather than glorifying the tragedy that causes it. When there is violence on screen, Kusama often views the victims with compassion, not as a spectacle. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, she discusses how she approached the ritual sacrifice scene in Jennifer’s Body: “It would have been easy to make that scene not serious when the fact is that it is very serious,” she said. “You have to take responsibility when you depict violence on screen. You have to show the humanity that is being compromised in both the victimizer and the victim.” In a profile on Buzzfeed, Kusama discusses violence against women in film, saying, “a girl or a woman is getting beaten to death or murdered somehow, often for sport, and we’re supposed to just feel that as an unfortunate harsh reality of the world. … It’s the stories that also need to change.”

Kusama is doing her part to change those stories. By focusing on the effects of violence on women, rather than glorifying the violence itself, Kusama makes sure the stories she tells center on women’s humanity. She is also changing the scope of stories by deciding whose stories she puts on film. In her first film, Girlfight (which came out in 2000, and which she also wrote), Kusama wanted to tell the story of a young woman of color coming of age in a boxing gym. But when she took meetings with possible financers for the film, they often had the same note: Can the main character be white?

Kusama refused. She would have rather waited to make her movie than to give up something so important. And it was important; that her main character was a young, Latina woman wasn’t a detail that could be changed like the color of a shirt. To make Diana white would be a different movie—a statement that seems so obvious it is infuriating to say out loud.

In Girlfight, Diana (Michelle Rodriguez, in her film debut role) turns to boxing as a way to handle her aggression and to possibly make money as a professional. Her alcoholic father refuses to pay for her lessons, sending her brother instead because, in his mind, girls don’t box. Diana has to find the money to pay for lessons, and once she becomes a boxer, she struggles to be taken seriously as a woman in her chosen sport. Whereas Jennifer’s Body loudly explores women’s lives through satire and stylized zaniness, Girlfight portrays Diana’s inner life softly and subtly. Michelle Rodriguez nails Diana’s quiet strength, allowing her stoicism and body language to say more than an emotional outburst ever could. Girlfight played at Sundance to a resounding reception—Kusama won the Directing Award, and Girlfight won the Grand Jury Prize.

Her second film was not so well received. Æon Flux came out in 2005 and was the first time Kusama made a movie with writers Hay and Manfredi. It stars Charlize Theron as Æon Flux, an assassin working to overthrow an oppressive government in a futuristic society. Part action film and part romance, Kusama’s original vision for the film was something artistic and unusual. But when the head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, left the studio soon before the movie came out, support for Æon Flux left with her. Kusama was taken off the movie, and the film was edited into something almost incomprehensible. Kusama was eventually asked back to re-edit it into something that made sense, but the final version is so far from what she wanted, she considered taking her name off the film. Even this version, though, shows seeds of the themes present in all of Kusama’s films: feminism, empathy, grief, and power.

Æon Flux only made $25.9 million domestically and $52.3 million worldwide; bad news for a big studio film that cost $62 million to make. Jennifer’s Body also bombed, making just $16.2 million domestically and $31.6 million worldwide. (I maintain that Jennifer’s Body is a good movie that was misunderstood. Æon Flux is just a mess.) But focusing on Kusama’s flops and box office totals misses the point. Being allowed to fail is not something that women directors often get the chance to do, “which is a big part, I think, of what we really need to be talking about when it comes to women’s careers in film,” Kusama told Buzzfeed. “It’s the sense that each movie represents some kind of finality, potentially, to their career, as opposed to the sense of you have hits, and you have misses. That’s called being an artist.”

This pressure to nail every single film is common for women directors, as is the pressure to represent all women in the stories they do get the chance to make. But Kusama will never have an uninterrupted string of perfect movies, just as the feminism she displays will never be a perfect representation for every woman.

In a recent story in Fast Company, Kusama discussed feeling free from these pressures when she was asked to contribute to XX, a horror anthology that came out in February, made up of four short films from women directors:

“I felt a tremendous freedom because the mission of the project was simply to be myself…It was kind of nice to be reminded that I don’t feel the urge to represent all of womanhood, or all of humanity—I simply want to tell an interesting story for myself and hope that it connects to other people.”

In her short, “Her Only Living Son,” Kusama takes a horrific look at motherhood. Riffing off Rosemary’s Baby, the film is about a mother whose son displays demonic characteristics on the eve of his 18th birthday. The film supposes that the woman who birthed a child of Satan was able to escape and go on the run with her son, denying the devil his due for 18 years. In the short, Kusama highlights her skills at creating suspense, starting slow, with brightly lit scenes, and ending in an explosion of literal and metaphorical darkness.

Kusama’s latest works have been horror, a genre that perhaps suits both her thematic preferences and skills best. Feminism is intrinsic to horror—turns out, the patriarchy is terrifying and rich with subject matter. The Invitation, for example, addresses issues borne from a sexist society, like the cost of women being polite and conforming to social norms. In The Invitation, most characters stay at a dinner party even when it gets deeply uncomfortable and weird. When one woman does speak up to leave, the film shows the social consequences. The hosts minimize her concerns, begging her to stay and have a good time. Later, a friend complains that she has always been awkward. In an early cut of the film, the woman who left the party was shown to have been killed. Kusama removed that scene to add ambiguity and create suspense, and she said her mind changes often on whether the character survives the ordeal. Later in the movie, at dinner, Will notes that something seems off about the party. “Why is everyone acting so fucking polite?” he asks, voicing what so many women know: that polite scripts can disguise bad intentions.

Kusama is currently signed on to direct the adaptation of Breed by Chase Novak, a book that fits right in with Kusama’s favored subjects. Breed is another horror story with themes of grief, parenthood, and society’s expectations. When a couple can’t conceive, they turn to a controversial medical method for help, and the results turn disastrous. Her skills will be put to good use on Breed, which has the pace of a thriller and includes nightmarish, visceral horror. The screenplay will be written by Hay and Manfredi.

Through her harrowing horror, her dark comedy, and her emotional storylines, the humanity Kusama shows her characters and her audience is the undercurrent connecting all her films—both the hits and the misses. A single movie from any director doesn’t represent their whole career, and to expect women directors to represent all things to all women, and to be perfect while doing it, is absurd. What Kusama does do consistently is give women, including women of color, a rich emotional life. Kusama also bucks the idea of being trapped telling “women’s stories”—another lie sexism tells. Deeply exploring women’s inner lives expands Kusama’s work, rather than restricts it. She has already demonstrated an ability to tell all kinds of stories while keeping women’s experiences centered, and she already makes great movies. By continuing to explore genre and storytelling techniques, by failing and trying and testing herself further, who knows where she will end up.