Destroyer (2018)

R   |    |  Action, Crime, Drama

Destroyer (2018) Poster

A police detective reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her distant past in order to make peace.

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  • Sebastian Stan at an event for Destroyer (2018)
  • Sebastian Stan in Destroyer (2018)
  • Nicole Kidman and Sebastian Stan in Destroyer (2018)
  • Sebastian Stan at an event for Destroyer (2018)
  • Nicole Kidman and Karyn Kusama in Destroyer (2018)
  • Sebastian Stan at an event for Destroyer (2018)

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1 February 2019 | Bertaut
| A superb central performance and an impressive aesthetic design elevate a quotidian plot
In a career spanning nineteen years, the output of director Karyn Kusama has been chequered, to say the least, with her oeuvre ranging from the excellent (Girlfight (2000), The Invitation (2015)) to the average (Jennifer's Body (2009), her section of the horror anthology XX (2017)) to the unwatchable (Æon Flux (2005)). With Destroyer, she once again teams with writers Phil Hay (to whom she is married) and Matt Manfredi, having previously worked with the duo on Æon Flux and The Invitation. Partly a film noir along the lines of The Killers (1946) or The Asphalt Jungle (1950); partly an anti-hero narrative depicting someone taking the law into their own hands, à la Dirty Harry (1971) or Death Wish (1974); and partly a heist movie borrowing more than liberally from Michael Mann's Heat (1995), Destroyer is an unashamedly pulpy genre piece, confrontationally ugly and unapologetically nihilistic, with crippling emotional trauma the protagonist's most salient characteristic. Of course, a damaged cop determined to settle one last score isn't exactly an original concept, and Destroyer never strays too far from the generic tropes seen in films such as The New Centurions (1972), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and Rampart (2011), or on TV shows such as Miami Vice (1984) and The Shield (2002). However, what it does bring to the table is that the archetypal "he" of such narratives is here a "she", with Kusama relying heavily on Nicole Kidman's startling warts-and-all performance to do most of the heavy lifting. Although the film does seem to be under the impression that it offers some portentous revelation about the nature of revenge and psychological torment, approaching every scene with an air of self-seriousness that can become grating, there are undeniably individual moments of great brilliance. And then there's that lead performance.

Telling the story of burnt-out and psychologically damaged LAPD homicide detective Erin Bell (Kidman), the film follows her efforts to find Silas (Toby Kebbell), the former leader of a bank robbery crew who is possibly back in LA. At the same time, she is trying to deal with her rebellious daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). Running concurrently to this, the film reveals via a series of flashbacks that 17 years prior, Bell and her then partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), were given an undercover assignment to bust Silas and his crew. Posing as a couple, they successfully infiltrated the group, but, somewhere along the line, they fell in love for real, with subsequent events resulting in the damaged person Bell has become.

Although Kusama doesn't explicitly foreground it, gender politics are an important aspect of the film. Much has been made of Kidman's physical transformation, although both Kusama and Kidman have argued that her appearance is not what the film is about, nor should it be critics' focus. Still though, we're not quite at a point where a woman altering her appearance for a role is unremarkable (when women do it, it's "brave"; when men do it, it's "acting"), and like Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Kidman's commitment to the part can only be applauded. In terms of the type of character she's playing, much as did Caoilfhionn Dunne in little-seen Irish film In View (2016), Kidman commits to Bell as an unlikable, violent, and psychologically ruined character, which in and of itself challenges conventional notions of what a female lead should be. It's undeniably fascinating seeing an actress (and a major one at that) get her teeth into the kind of gritty, embittered, and irredeemable character we usually see a man play, especially insofar as the film resists the urge to soften Bell or provide her with a clear road to redemption. In this sense, she has a lot in common with LT (Harvey Keitel) in Bad Lieutenant (1992); much of what she does has just as good a chance of dragging her down further to hell as it does of lifting her up. But she's beyond caring about herself, concerned only with busting (and preferably killing) Silas. Of course, she's also a mother, and like so many male archetypes, she has not been there for her child. This aspect of her character in particular, compels the audience to ask questions of itself regarding how men and women are perceived on screen - is a woman neglecting a child more forgivable than a man doing so, or less; do we simply expect women to automatically be good mothers in ways we never consider in relation to men as fathers? What do our presuppositions about motherhood on screen say about us as individuals and as a society?

Kidman's commitment to the role of Bell produces a chameleonic performance that carries most of the film's weight. Never afraid to take risks (see Dogville (2003), Birth (2004), Rabbit Hole (2010), The Paperboy (2012), Strangerland (2015)), Kidman completely immerses herself within Bell (who is both the destroyer of the title, and the destroyed). With Bell appearing in literally every scene, there's a sense of authenticity in Kidman's performance, almost as if this were a documentary, and Bell was a real person. It's haunting, disturbing, and heartbreaking all at once. Of course, Bill Corso's makeup design, Barbara Lorenz's hair styling, and, to a lesser extent, Audrey Fisher's costume design all play their part in turning Kidman into this broken shell. The flashback structure is also important vis-à-vis the performance, as Kidman plays Bell very differently in these scenes - her hair is more kempt, her skin smoother (via some subtle de-ageing VFX), her eyes don't droop, her teeth have not yet turned yellow, her gait is more upright, she smiles a couple of times, her voice is more authoritative.

Thematically, the film concerns itself with the long-lasting psychological effects of experiencing significant trauma. No one says Bell is suffering from PTSD, but she sure ticks a lot of the boxes, and rarely has a film been so pessimistic about peoples' ability to recover from emotional damage. Bell is told at one point, "you know what successful people do? They get over things", and in this sense, she is one of the least successful characters you'll ever see on screen. Her memories are a cancer which has taken over her body and soul, making her loathe herself, with her anguish subsuming every other facet of her being (she never even hints at a smile in the present day).

Aesthetically, Kusama's LA is as cynical as you're ever likely to see the city, and obviously owes a sizable debt to Michael Mann. The LA seen in Destroyer is a place of dried out waterways, burnt grass, a glaring sun, endless concrete that looks hot to touch, pollution, corruption, betrayal, graffiti, indiscriminate violence. Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood shoots the present in washed-out anaemic hues, white, beige, brown, lots of sun spots and lens flares, whilst she shots the past with a more saturated palette giving the impression of comfortable warmth rather than stifling heat; a neat metaphorical representation of Bell's mindset. Combined with the nails-on-blackboard quality of Theodore Shapiro's score, which burrows under your skin, the cumulative aesthetic effect is one of great discomfit.

Of course, there are problems. For the most part, the screenplay is unoriginal and by-the-numbers, and without the power of Kidman's performance, this would have been a straight-to-Blu-ray. Kusama also struggles to break free of the restraints of the genre, which is especially disappointing when you consider the depth of emotion she brought to the otherwise schlocky thriller, The Invitation. The script also seems to be holding something back, teasing the audience with the promise of a big reveal that will transpose Bell's story into something far more universal and esoteric. The first season of True Detective (2014) employed this technique as well, but the difference is that when True Detective pulled the trigger, the reveal was horrifying and worth the wait. In Destroyer, it's hard to be certain if there even was a reveal. The script is certainly aiming for profundity, but it's nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Along these lines, Kusama makes some very strange directorial choices. Look at the skateboarders near Bell's car in the opening scene, for example, shot chiaroscuro in extreme slow-motion not once, but twice. What exactly is their significance? Why does Kusama shoot them as if they are offering some kind of life-altering revelation? Are they supposed to act as a voiceless chorus? Are they a metaphor for something? The pacing can also be sluggish at times, lacking in urgency, and thus undermining the existential crisis at the heart of the film. This is especially true if you figure out the twist, which my colleague did in literally the second scene.

Destroyer is an average story elevated by the commitment of its leading actress and some laudable aesthetic choices. It's a cynical and humourless film noir aspiring to something more substantial, but never really accomplishing it. However, its unflinching depiction of devastating emotional trauma, presenting Bell as an open wound, slowly bleeding out, is brilliantly handled. The complete inverse of films which depict characters responding to tragedy with humour, optimism, and determination, Destroyer is brutally nihilistic, giving us a character whose obsession is both keeping her alive and killing her. Although it will be far too lugubrious for some, the film has much to recommend it, not the least of which is that extraordinary performance at its centre.

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Plot Summary

Synopsis (WARNING: Spoilers)


Action | Crime | Drama | Mystery | Thriller

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