Karyn Kusama has established herself as a force to be reckoned with in genre filmmaking. In the last decade, she has directed three feature films: Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation, and now Destroyer. These films reach across genres from supernatural horror-comedy to crime thriller, but what unites them is Kusama’s vested interest in exploring trauma, violence, grief, and how women process their experiences with these subjects.
One of Kusama’s distinguishing features in her films is a willingness to present antiheroes and flawed protagonists and to resist the temptation to either save them from themselves or damn them for their sins. Many of her characters live in the slippery space between good and bad — a space that, traditionally, male characters are more likely to occupy than women. Although we’re seeing pop culture’s relationship to antiheroes change before our eyes, it’s safe to say that we can all recognize some of the most famous examples: Philip Marlowe, Travis Bickle, Tony Soprano, Daniel Plainview, Walter White. All (in)famous antiheroes. All men.
In Kusama’s latest, Nicole Kidman plays jaded LA cop Erin Bell. Erin, with the help of some makeup that renders Kidman virtually unrecognizable, is noticeably rough around the edges from the very first shot of the film. Destroyer cuts between different timelines to portray Erin as a woman hardened by her experiences in the field who has struggled as a mother and a cop. When the body of a John Doe who Erin recognizes turns up, she realizes it may be a sign that the leader of a criminal gang she had gone undercover with previously may be back in town. She sets off to track down the former gang members and to seek revenge for events that transpired 16 years ago. She stumbles through crime scenes, gruffly communicates with everyone around her, and fails to connect with her estranged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). While Hollywood has no shortage of dirty cops, the female-centric plot of Destroyer sets itself apart from other, male-focused films.
But Kusama is no stranger to bringing originality to tried-and-true genre tropes. She displayed this in her first film, 2000’s Girlfight, starring Michelle Rodriguez as a female boxer. Notably, she also displayed this quality with 2009’s Jennifer’s Body. Despite being met with a muted critical reception at the time of its release, Jennifer’s Body has seen a resurgence in interest over the last few years and it’s starting to be established as a cult classic — deservedly so, I might add.
In Jennifer’s Body, Amanda Seyfried stars as Anita “Needy” Lesnicki, a bookish counterpart to Megan Fox‘s eponymous, cheerleading Jennifer. Despite their differences, Needy and Jennifer are lifelong best friends until the night when Jennifer is kidnapped and murdered by an indie rock band hoping to guarantee their success with the help of virgin sacrifice to Satan. One problem: Jennifer isn’t a virgin. The plan backfires, she becomes possessed by a demon, and she must feed on humans to keep her strength up. Needy figures out what’s happening and best friends turn into foes as she decides to fight against Jennifer before the demon possessing her kills anyone else.
There’s a visible disconnect present throughout the film between who Jennifer is and who others want her to be. Nikolai (Adam Brody), the band member who personally kills Jennifer, states that he knows her type, assumes she’s a flirt and nothing more, and that’s why he thinks she’s a virgin. On the other hand, practically every other man who interacts with Jennifer does so because he wants something sexual from her. Kusama makes it clear that demons aside, the expectations forced on Jennifer as a teenage girl put her in a no-win scenario. Whether or not Jennifer is sexual, the men around her are always going to objectify her, make assumptions about her, and treat her accordingly. It’s no surprise she comes across as aggressive, manipulative, and selfish even before the demonic possession; she’s adapted these traits to survive in a world that never saw her as a real human being to begin with.
But Kusama is too interested in the slippery slope between good and evil to let Jennifer off the hook. When facing off against Needy, who complains about Jennifer mistreating her for the entirety of their friendship and that she’s now eating her boyfriend, Jennifer snaps back that at least she’s “consistent.” Although Jennifer was made this way by the society she was raised in, that doesn’t excuse her actions towards Needy and it doesn’t mean the film is wrong to position her as a villain.
A similar situation occurs in Kusama’s 2015 thriller, The Invitation. The film follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green), who has been invited to the home of his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), along with several other friends of theirs, in order to meet Eden’s new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Will and Eden lost their son several years ago and it’s clear that this grief still hangs over them as individuals and when they are together. To deal with her grief, Eden has sought the help of a mysterious, New Age support group known as “The Invitation.” As the night goes on, Will becomes increasingly suspicious of the group and of Eden’s motivations for gathering everyone together.
As it turns out, despite Eden assuring everyone that she’s found peace and has healed from the trauma, Will was right to think that there was something more sinister going on. Eden’s support group is more of a cult and her plans for the night are more deadly than any of the dinner guests imagined. By presenting two characters who experienced the same loss and who deal with it in radically different ways, Kusama demonstrates that difficult experiences from the past do not excuse actions in the present.
If Kusama was simply interested in redeeming her flawed women, it’s easy to imagine the themes that could have been raised by The Invitation and the scenarios that could have played out. Before the other shoe drops, Kusama teases at the possibility that Will is paranoid and that Eden and “The Invitation” are harmless. Perhaps there is no “wrong” way to grieve; perhaps her dinner guests should be more considerate of Eden’s process and should understand that she’s found a way to move forward; perhaps they should respect the deep, complicated feelings that she experiences as a woman. Or, perhaps not. In Kusama’s vision, Eden is absolutely wrong, she has gone too far, she’s failed to deal with her experiences in an appropriate way, and she must face the consequences. Her messy feelings don’t warrant a redemption. That she’s a woman who endured a traumatic event doesn’t mean we should forgive her.
In Destroyer, Erin’s past trauma has had an impact on her ability to perform as a cop, but it’s also shaped her relationship with her daughter in irreparable ways. As others have noted, one thing that sets Destroyer apart from similar stories is that Erin can’t find salvation through motherhood — she’s simply a bad mom. Her love for her daughter can’t change all the ways she has failed her. Destroyer can be uncomfortable to watch for this reason. We’re used to seeing women defined by their maternal instincts, we want to believe that mothers will and can do anything for their children. But the reality is that moms — and women as a whole — can fail. Like Jennifer and Eden, Erin has dealt with trauma and violence that she wasn’t deserving of. In all three cases, Kusama demonstrates that these women should be understood, at times even empathized with, but this shouldn’t negate the fact that their actions have consequences and that they should be held accountable.
By basing stories around these deeply flawed women, Kusama calls traditional ideas of redemption into question. These aren’t characters who make and then learn from mistakes; they are ones who double down on their problems, their vindictive tendencies, their malicious qualities. Kusama takes redemption off the table and instead asks us to consider the stories of women who don’t deal with their grief properly, who can’t atone for their sins, who become the villains of their stories. We don’t have to like them and we certainly don’t want to save them — but Kusama ensures we won’t ignore them.