In Karyn Kusama's newest feature film, The Invitation, a group of old friends gathers in a secluded house in the Hollywood Hills, reuniting after two years of radio silence from their hosts. What follows is slow-burning suspense, testing belief systems and social niceties, under the guise of a dinner party. Kusama also explores the horror of grief through her main character, Will (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a man who has lost his son and cannot shake his sadness.
"I feel tremendously sympathetic and empathetic with Will," Kusama says. "I've lost people too early. I understand this mistrust he has about social decorum and courtesy as a meaningful part of discourse. He doesn't just want to be relaxed and have fun. He wants meaning. It also alienates him from the group."
Kusama's directorial debut, Girlfight, launched the career of Michelle Rodriguez with a tough-edged coming-of-age drama, where a girl kicks and punches her way into the trappings of love and adulthood. From there, she was handed a Hollywood budget for Aeon Flux, enduring what was essentially a studio sabotage of the film, before taking on Diablo Cody's succubus horror flick Jennifer's Body. These four features share some tenuous throughlines, but when I sat down to talk with Kusama, it was clear there is one thing she has been singularly obsessed with: violence.
"People always ask what makes you different as a woman director — which is almost absolutely nothing," Kusama says. "But when I think of the perspective of women's consciousness, [I realize] it must be violence. So frequently violence is depicted against us. We're the first to go, the Holy Grail of war crimes, the starting line of how to exact revenge. It's hard not to be, in my mind, a woman and not be kind of obsessed with violence."
But now that Kusama has a 9-year-old son, she sees violence differently. "We're at a point where more and more we need to make violence have an impact and consequence and meaning and not just be this horrible texture to the world. With The Invitation, I needed to see it through a lens where all of that violence had a palpable effect on the audience, and they couldn't just walk away from it feeling like they had forgotten it had happened."
Through most of The Invitation, we endure a feeling that something is very wrong, and that there will be consequences, so when the violence does hit, your nerves are already wracked. The opening throws audiences right into it when Will, en route to the party, hits a coyote with his car. With no one around, and a half-dead animal whimpering in pain, Will must put it out of its misery. The scene's almost devoid of dialogue. There's nothing to say. But it sets up what Kusama sees as the central tension of her work.
"I'm attempting to wrestle with the fact that we're all animals," she says. "There are all these things we do that are beautiful expressions of what makes us human. But the other expression of what makes us human seems to be the most primitive expressions of dominance, power and mindless violence."
The coyote scene is so visceral that it's only natural to guess that Kusama's encountered the animals herself. She says she often looks out her front window to see them in her yard.
"The tragedy is they're really confused about where they are," she says. "They shouldn't be down as far as Franklin or Los Feliz, but they've been so displaced by all these houses up in the hills that they're just trying to figure out where home is. My husband [screenwriter Phil Hay] says, 'The fat ones I'm not concerned about. It's the skinny ones that look hungry.'"
Kusama has infused that animalistic hunger and desperation in her characters, especially those in the cult. They don't belong anywhere, and just like the coyotes, these displaced people are the scariest ones. Kusama is adept at working little personal moments or character traits into her movies, and The Invitation is no different — at times, it was life imitating art.
"It's terrible, but I hit a coyote with my car. It ran off, but we hit it," she says. "It was while we were ramping up toward getting the money for this movie. And I thought this is such a weird horrible sign, or a good sign, but either way, this animal is limping away from our car. The scene was already in when we hit it."
She says she doesn't believe in omens but does find meaning in "energies and event clusters." This belief informs her films, especially The Invitation, whose story ultimately turns on an intimate understanding of how people can go a little too far with their cosmic beliefs.
"I know some people who've probably lost their way a little bit over the years," she says. "But, really, I think my experience with cults is the same as everybody else's. I watch television. I look at billboards. I bank at a multinational corporation. There's a lot of belief systems out there, beyond spiritual ones, that are attempting a form of social control, whether we know it or not."
Coyotes have a pack mentality, and Kusama says she's wary when people in groups fall into their own strict social codes. She's been trapped by them herself, once enduring a party in Beverly Hills where the only other women invited had been paid to be there. She didn't leave, even though she wanted to, because someone important was throwing the party, and that's not what you do if you want to work in Hollywood. In The Invitation, Kusama turns that feeling of needing to stay, even though every nerve is telling you to leave, into a situation where horrific consequences face those who politely adhere to social norms and demands.
"The movie is meant to be a meditation on loss and grief and sorrow and the dangers of not letting those things into your life," she says. "It's an extreme example, but ... it's what feels real to me somehow."