There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“Her Only Living Son,” the final segment of the 2017 horror anthology XX. Written and directed by Karyn Kusama, the short stars Christina Kirk as Cora, a stressed-out single mother whose charismatic, malevolent teenage son Andy (Kyle Allen) has been stirring up trouble at school with his violent behavior — and even more disturbingly, with his fiercely devoted lackeys. Cora is especially unnerved that no one in the high school’s administration is willing to punish her boy, because they may all have fallen under his evil influence.
Why watch now?
Because Kusama’s gritty crime drama Destroyer opens in select theaters this weekend.
Nicole Kidman will likely be a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her performance as Erin Bell, a burned-out, booze-soaked Los Angeles cop. Destroyer jumps back in forth in time, between the distant past, when a young Erin went undercover with a cult-like criminal gang, and the present, when she’s terrorizing the L.A. underworld, trying to track down the man who controlled that crew and ruined her life. The differences in the character between the two eras are stark. In the flashbacks, Erin is cocky and bright. In the present, Kidman plays the detective as emaciated and irritable. She’s been ground down to a nub, because she can’t seem to escape all the wreckage she’s left in her wake, from her wayward teenage daughter to the broken people she ran with as a rookie.
Though it’s plenty violent and twisty, Destroyer is more of a character study than a two-fisted pulp picture. Or to be more exact, it’s a characters study. Destroyer isn’t just about Erin, it’s about the people she interacts with, and how they’ve been changed by the traumas that the people in these kinds of stories tend to suffer, from physical abuse to chemical dependency to the loss of loved ones. In most of Kusama’s work to date as a director, she’s made films rooted in genre conventions, but she’s generally been more interested in what happens to the heroines who get knocked around than in what’s doing the knocking.
After working as an assistant to American independent filmmaking pioneer John Sayles, Kusama wrote and directed Girlfight, an old-fashioned boxing melodrama starring Michelle Rodriguez (in her screen debut) as an angry Brooklyn teen and amateur pugilist who learns to channel her personal pain into punches. Kusama’s first big-studio experience, with 2005’s futuristic action film Aeon Flux, was a disaster, with the studio gutting the arthouse movie she made in an attempt to turn it into a conventional action film. But she rebounded with the Diablo Cody-penned 2009 black comedy gore-fest Jennifer’s Body, which was critically derided at the time, but has been reassessed much more positively in recent years.
The rebound in Jennifer’s Body’s reputation has a lot to do with Kusama’s two subsequent horror films: 2015’s widely acclaimed The Invitation and 2017’s “Her Only Living Son.” While powerful fright-film producer Jason Blum has apologized for saying earlier this year that talented women directors aren’t “inclined” toward horror, he hasn’t been alone in missing what movie-makers like Kusama can bring to these kinds of stories, just in the way they focus on fresh characters and situations. The Invitation is as much about the stress of everyday social interactions at a dinner party as it is about the eventual slaughter it builds to. And “Her Only Living Son” is a sharply conceived evocation of a common parental anxiety: that a mother might make all the well-intentioned choices in the world, and still fail to prevent her baby from growing up to be a monster.
Who it’s for
People who like smart, self-aware genre pictures.
It’s not spoiling anything to say that “Her Only Living Son” is a direct homage to Roman Polanski and Ira Levin’s occult classic Rosemary’s Baby. The references to their horror film are obvious early on, and only become stronger as the story pushes to its haunting conclusion. The best way to describe the film is “Rosemary’s Baby, 18 years later.” Kusama’s short film imagines how the mother of a demon-baby would react when the unholy terror begins to grow into adulthood, and realizes the dark power it wields.
But Kusama didn’t have a Hollywood budget or two hours of screen-time to work with on “Her Only Living Son.” In just 20 minutes, and in just a few locations, she gives a sense of what her heroine Cora has endured. While her ex-husband has been getting the better end of his literal deal with the devil, she’s been taking care of the child she loves, and nervously awaiting the moment when he’ll begin gathering his disciples and preparing to conquer the world, as has been foretold. As always, Kusama is less concerned with the coming darkness than she is with a struggling woman, in this case one who’s seeing the potential End Of Days as a reflection of her own failures.
Where to see it
Netflix. “Her Only Living Son” begins at XX’s 52-minute mark, for those who want to fast-forward. For more Kusama, Netflix also has The Invitation, another combination of social satire and horror, written by Destroyer’s screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. (Hay and Kusama have been married since 2006, not long after after he and Manfredi wrote Aeon Flux.) Kusama’s Sundance-winning debut film Girlfight is also widely available, on Vudu and Crackle.