Karyn Kusama wrote and directed her first feature film, Girlfight, which won the Director’s Prize and shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. She followed it up with the 2004 sci-fi film Aeon Flux and the 2009 cult comedy-horror Jennifer’s Body, and won huge acclaim for her 2015 psychological drama The Invitation. Her latest film, the L.A.-set thriller Destroyer starring Nicole Kidman, is out December 25 through Annapurna Pictures. Karyn is also an in-demand TV director where she has brought her obsessive eye for detail to shows like Halt and Catch Fire, The Man in the High Castle and Billions. She lives in Los Angeles.
One of the films that really landed with me this year is First Reformed, as I was very interested by what that movie was investigating, and I thought all the performances were wonderful. I also thought Leave No Trace was just sublime, a perfect American masterpiece. There was an effortlessness with which Debra Granik was able to direct that material, and I found her “invisible” technique awe-inspiring.
I saw First Reformed with my husband, Phil Hay; he and Matt Manfredi, his writing partner, wrote Destroyer, and The Invitation and Æon Flux before that. We saw First Reformed because I had heard Ethan Hawke was really interesting in it, and I find him an underrated actor. Before seeing the film, I didn’t know that First Reformed explored the idea of an older iteration of faith versus a new iteration – that is, the size of your flock; the grandness of your space; the modernity of your techniques, using television and pop music and other marketing tools to get your faith out to the people and to sell your religion. Both old and new are burdened by the capacity for radicalization: in Ethan Hawke’s character (representing traditional faith), it’s his willingness to become an eco-terrorist, while in the church run by Cedric the Entertainer’s character, it’s the ability to be bought by corporate interests (the true eco-terrorists). Schrader exposes the dangers of religion – how we crave faith in something real. It was so exciting; as I was watching First Reformed, I thought, “This is a really good movie.” I walked into the theater with measured expectations, because though Schrader has been a part of work that I find very important, particularly Taxi Driver, he’s also made work that hasn’t resonated with me too, so to see him in his seventies, writing and directing something that seems to be a complicated expression of who he is, was interesting. And it was inspiring to realize that at this stage of his career, he’s still investigating ideas in a serious way.
The crisis of faith which Ethan Hawke’s character suffers is not so much about the question of where his faith will take him, but the question, “Do I have faith at all?” It’s a very profound experience to be in proximity to a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Taxi Driver is much more a portrait of psychosis, channeled through the hot-house flower imagination of Scorsese, but when Schrader takes that story as his own in First Reformed, it very much becomes a rejection of the modern world. And I sympathize with it, because I think much of the modern world is quickening the pace of our extinction. Not to get too grim, but I just don’t believe all of these technological tools we’ve been offered are really the tools they say they are. I saw in the film a relationship between a belief or a faith in the natural world and materiality itself, as opposed to a belief in these ideas around marketing and growing your base and that corporatized idea of something as personal as faith.
I was really unsettled by First Reformed, and particularly a scene involving the actor Philip Ettinger, who plays a man in crisis about how we are destroying the natural world. Seeing a character in active interrogation mode of the world we live in right now, I thought, “Why don’t we see more characters in this space? Why does this feel so bold and new when this is the state of mind most of us are living in all the time?”
First Reformed does a great job of setting up its duality between these two versions of faith. With Leave No Trace, it would have been so easy to see the natural world living in opposition to the man-made world, but in fact there is so much more cooperation there than you’d expect. I was caught off guard in that movie by the fact that people are kind to Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s characters, and genuinely try to help them enter into the modern world (after years of living in the wild). But, despite that kindness, it was still too complicated a reality to navigate for Ben Foster’s character. The movie isn’t making enemies of anyone. It’s not positing any antagonist, except the one we have in ourselves. That was so refreshing, because I’ve been steeped in a moviemaking that is dependent on the idea of destructive characters and self-annihilation. Leave No Trace was like the perfect cool breeze coming into an empty room; it opened up my mind to the possibilities of a very pure, emotional kind of storytelling.
Any movies that work on me emotionally without using narrative signposts telling me what kind of movie I’m in, are especially interesting to me. I find it very hard to make those movies and very hard to find those movies for myself, because I often crave those signposts and am an unabashed lover of genre films. They are an undervalued or disreputable cinematic form a lot of the time, but I love genre films because you can quietly be packing them with ideas and not have to suddenly be explaining your politics – you’re able to just present the world as you see it. In First Reformed, for instance, it would have been very easy for Cedric the Entertainer’s character to be an actual antagonist in the movie, but he’s not. He’s actually trying to do right by Ethan Hawke’s character, but our lizard brains want to imagine that there has to be a good guy and a bad guy.
Leave No Trace shares with First Reformed this sense of not wanting to give the audience the pleasure of an easy antagonist, because that lets us off the hook from really wrestling with the larger questions and issues. To me, there is something profoundly heroic and heartbreaking about Ben Foster’s character wanting to live in nature because it’s the place his mind is quietest. And yet he is subjecting his daughter to this very challenging and, ironically, unnatural situation; the modern world lives around her and she is being asked to step away from it, when that’s not necessarily her choice. You admire what the characters have achieved together, living in the forest for years, but also feel that it’s not everyone’s path, nor should it be. That felt very complicated and rich to me, a non-judgmental humanist view of all the ways that our lives can collapse inwards, because we just can’t stop fighting wars. I thought it was really cool that that Leave No Trace was, in some sense, a stealth war movie.
Leave No Trace was especially powerful to me in how it treated the act of doing things. We got to watch those characters make fires, cook food and make shelter. That attention to the almost meditative practice of doing something with intention and thoughtfulness is, in some respects, another living embodiment of Schrader’s whole treatise on transcendental film.
What I love about the cinematic art form is that I can watch movies that feel so unique in their voice that it drives me to ask myself, what is the thing I want to make that is unique to me? First Reformed and Leave No Trace opened my eyes to more that is possible for me in the future, and that was exciting. Those ways of seeing the world – where, for instance, the antagonists are not so clearly drawn – are something I could apply to my own work. I think I live in a state of attunement to this idea of villains, because villains are running our country, so it’s hard for that to not infect the work that I do. In today’s troubled times, to make such thoughtful investigations of modern life like First Reformed and Leave No Trace, which dare to create a more ambiguous moral landscape, takes some guts.