International Women’s Day Spotlight: Director Karyn Kusama

By: William Hume

She has a knack for casting, she’s survived audacious high-concept flops, she’s done some killer TV work, and delivered a sleeper hit in The Invitation. Coming off of Destroyer and her work on HBO’s The Outsider the male-dominated industry could use more Karyn Kusama to help change for the better.

Happy International Women’s Day! I like this day more and more every year and Spotlighting women and female stories is a subject of interest at FilmGamer! Since hate and online trolls are often the subject of blame and on everybody’s minds I thought I’d take the time to focus on a female filmmaker who deserves a higher profile. She has made some impressive bad films like Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body but equally impressive is that she has since created some of her best work. She’s the kind of filmmaker who should be getting higher profile gigs, and does distinctly feminine work without alienating a lot of these trolls. Is it wrong I think that should be commended? She isn’t brought up a whole lot alongside the likes of the Kathryn Bigelow or Kelly Reicherdt or Jennifer Kent or Greta Gerwig in terms of female filmmakers. But like Bigelow she has had a long career, can operate in as dark a corner as Reichhardt or Kent and doesn’t earn the ire of trolls similar to Gerwig. I think that any educated minority woman who can make high profile flops and still keep working is worth taking a look at.

A social thriller of manners in the vein of Get Out (pre-Get Out). Now available on Netflix.

I don’t think Logan Marshall-Green is a particularly great actor. He has a good agent, and good taste, and that goes a long way. His understated work in The Invitation is his best performance and is helped along by Director Karyn Kusama who despite all the wrongings of this character never has us abandon him. Audience goodwill he lacked in Prometheus and struggled to find in Devil was greatly helped here, that led him to a much stronger leading man status in Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. Perhaps Green would have got there without her, but in his finest hour he had a lot of help that would later score him the title role in a mini-series Quarry.

Seeing what she could do with a Capital A actor in Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, I remained fascinated. Why was this piece of work, which provides a stronger atmospheric grip of the L.A. style labyrinth crime story, (moreso than True Detective and Nightcrawler with less experienced cinematographers) not celebrated more? Perhaps it was too nasty even for many critics to stomach (the movie does feature a pretty brutal stomach kick), or perhaps despite being a hard boiled detective story with a unique point of view it didn’t easily fit into a previously defined mold as Katie Walsh put it “[Destroyer] feels like David Lynch directing a Michael Mann film, which is to say it’s both not as entertaining as a Mann film and not as surreally intoxicating as a Lynch film.”

Famous critics like Leonard Maltin noted Kusama’s knack for casting as unusually good. However if you follow her career, from snagging a post Oscar-winning Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, an immediate post-Transformers Megan Fox, or giving Michelle Rodriguez her breakthrough in Girlfight which Vin Diesel later saw to cast her in The Fast and the Furious, she has always had a good eye for actors. Bit players like Bradley Whitford and Toby Kebbell as well as Marvel players like Sebastian Stan who have struggled to breakout under the Marvel shield excel underneath Kusama’s direction. In a more critical review, Eye for Film‘s Jennie Kermode added that it might have made a good TV episode.

“The One About the Yiddish Vampire” S7, E6 of HBO’s ‘The Outsider’ (2020).

Perhaps Kusama took that criticism to heart. By its fifth episode HBO’s new murder mystery series reached the Apex of its chief complaint even to fans like me. It starts to drag, demanding patience the likes of which would make The Wire jealous. But Kusama’s direction in episode six gives us reason to be optimistic. As Allison Shoemaker noted in her AV Club review, “[I]t somehow accelerates even in its moments of stillness. With the possible exception of that remarkable series-opener, it could—almost—be the strongest in the series so far.”

Kusama should be on the shortlist to direct every killer thriller on the market. She should be putting up a mainstream adult thriller at one of the major labels like 20th Century Fox (Gone Girl, The Woman in the Window) Universal Pictures (The Girl on the Train), Paramount (Arrival) or Sony (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). I would further argue her films have the male-female crossover appeal David Fincher had for Gone Girl, that some of the other projects lack. I look forward to her next project even if or should I say particularly if it’s another major exciting outside baseball choice. No matter what, I’m excited for Karyn Kusama.


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