Karyn Kusama has continually put out work that shows her brilliance as a director and has a very clear message to her audience. With such movies as Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation, she brings strong characters to the screen in a way that forces the audience to care about what’s happening in their story.
Her latest work comes in the form of Destroyer, following the story of LAPD Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) as she navigates her past and what it means to struggle with what she did long ago, and what she has to do to rectify her situation. I had the chance to sit down with Kusama to talk about the film and what it means to bring a story like this to life.
The movie does an incredible job of showing the different aspects of the character, from her past life and her relationship with her partner, Sebastian Stan’s Chris, to her present-day struggles and her fight with her daughter and her own alcohol use.
Erin, in my eyes, is a character that typically occupies a space that a male character would take. So I talked to Kusama about that, telling the story as Erin’s story, and not focusing so heavily on the fact that she’s a woman in a role that isn’t typically a story told from the female perspective. Kusama told me,
“I think Phil and Matt and I agree that we wouldn’t have made the movie if Erin wasn’t Erin. The fact that she was female was what animated, to me, her relationship to her child and how so much emotional material drove the character, eventually, quite explicitly, and I should be clear in saying that I don’t see that as a mark of her femaleness; I just see it as something that marks the role apart from most roles for women and men.”
She went on to talk about how it’s a problem for both female and male roles in movies—that they’re losing complexity:
“I wish I saw more complicated men, too. So I think there’s, probably, when there’s a reaction that this is a space that a man usually occupies, I actually wonder if what they’re talking about is her lack of vanity, her rage, her physical violence, and her inability, it seems, to really care what anybody thinks, and I think it’s interesting that we assign those qualities to men and assume that women are some kind of mirror opposite when, in fact, I think, I hope, we’re all a little more complicated than that.”
Talking about Erin’s role as a mother, Kusama brought up why Erin’s reaction to her daughter stands out so much throughout the film:
“That says a lot about our hopes and our fears and our fantasies about mothers generally, and for me, I just feel like I know plenty of mothers who have not actually been quite capable of offering the vulnerability and emotional availability to their child as they might have wanted—it just doesn’t figure into how they parent—and I just thought that was kind of an interesting thing to play around with.”
While the movie focuses on Erin and her past and present, Chris plays an important role in how Erin exists in the modern day. He’s only in the movie for maybe ten minutes, but his role is so important to the Erin we meet later in her life, and his presence is felt throughout the film thanks to his performance:
“Thankfully, Sebastian brought so much intelligence and complexity and genuine tenderness to the role so you really felt, by that last scene, that he is so desperately in love with her and that he’s going to do something so foolish in service to those feelings.”
Erin and Chris are head over heels in love (and continually high on drugs as they get further into their undercover mission), but there are aspects of their characters that reach into the audience and make us care for them both:
“He (Sebastian Stan) brought a lot of layers to it that just told us that these guys were not ready for what happened, and Sebastian is just such a lovely guy that there is something about him and Nicole. It was so instant that I was like, ‘We’re going to be okay.’ I feel like the chemistry between them is very real and genuine and, I don’t know, just truly emotionally connected. And I know that, in some respects, the audience isn’t sure, initially—when we discover that they really are a couple—we’re not sure what’s really driving that, but by the end, to learn that they are crazy about each other, it makes it heartbreaking.”
Their love is told in a way that brings a contrast to the film, separating the two sides of Erin’s story, and it’s important to uphold the significance of her relationship with Chris:
“She opens herself up to him, and in doing so immediately ensnares him in a plan that’s so wrong-headed, and she lives with that for the rest of her life.”
Tatiana Maslany and Nicole Kidman both play two women who go through levels of loss and drug abuse and end up in very different situations later in life, and Kusama discussed Maslany and her take on Petra, and what it meant seeing the effects drugs had on her throughout the years:
“There was something about this idea of the character of Petra being this lost soul who escapes being another Beverly Hills rich girl by hooking up with a really bad guy and abandons everything. This is her way of separating from her fucked up life, is to kind of give up everything to this guy, and I am just personally very interested in the effects of longterm drug abuse on a person, and this was an opportunity to really see how—with the right actor of course, and Tatiana was certainly that—what the effect is on your physical self, of course, but primarily your mind and how your mind works.”
What’s interesting about the film is that neither of these characters really seems to care about their looks, focusing, instead, on what’s happening in their lives, and Kidman and Maslany both reacted to that aspect of their characters:
“She and Nicole were, similarly, as actors, were completely disinterested in vanity. Neither of them wanted to quote look good; they just wanted to be the most truthful embodiment of the character.”
I brought up my love of Nicole Kidman (my favorite movie has been Moulin Rouge! since I was 10), and Kusama and I talked about the star’s career and her change from being the young ingenue character to this tour-de-force actress who doesn’t care about the vanity of a role:
“I think she’s actually in a completely potent period right now, where the work she’s doing is so adventurous and strange and particular to her. She never takes a role out of a sense of strategy or, she’s completely guided by her own drumbeat and I really respect that in her.”
Talking about the duality of the story, Kusama managed to bring both sides of Erin’s life to the screen independently of each other while also having them flow together. She went on to attribute it to the script (written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) and the understanding the three had with the characters and what story they were trying to tell.
I also asked her about a twist that happens in the film (one I will not discuss here, because you need to see it for yourself), and Kusama had nothing but praise for both Hay and Manfredi about the level of engineering within the story.
We finishing by talking about what she hoped Destoryer did for audiences. She simply wants people to examine themselves, as well as the relationships in their own lives:
“I hope that this is a movie that can get people closer to, I guess I want to say, feeling curious about the people in their own lives and about themselves. You know, what drives them and what drives the people around them.”
Destroyer is out in Los Angeles and New York on Christmas Day, with a wider release in January.
(image: Anna Purna pictures)
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