It got quite ugly trying to get into Destroyer. I’m talking arguments with event staff, people stepping out and losing their seats, queues outside of the Picturehouse and around the block for a film that Festival organisers mistakenly believed would drum up less interest than the latest Jean Luc-Goddard wankfest – which, hilariously/infuriatingly, ended up having its press screening cancelled hours before due to “unforeseen circumstances” anyway – and so stuck in a screen with a much lower capacity the Screen 1 to their detrimental naïveté. An old-fashioned noir by one of our most cruelly underrated directors, starring one of our most interesting actresses, and blowing doors off at many other festivals leading up to this one? And they thought people wouldn’t queue around the block for it? That’s the kind of thinking that got Kusama locked in Director’s Jail for six years whilst someone like Guy Ritchie serves no time whatsoever!
When I say that Destroyer is a noir, I mean bad cops, worse criminals, a case gone horribly wrong, and the desperate but ultimately futile search for redemption, encased in a crushing atmosphere of borderline despair. A near-unrecognisable Nicole Kidman plays LAPD Detective Erin Bell who, as a rookie 17 years earlier, was placed undercover as part of an FBI sting operation on a Californian gang that eventually ended with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan) whom she developed genuine romantic feelings for, dead, all of the gang members getting away with several million dollars, and her left standing to deal with the trauma. Which she hasn’t been doing, at all. A barely-functioning alcoholic, she’s spent a lifetime alienating everyone around her, including her 16-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), stewing in a pot of rage and, from what we hear from other characters, being a pretty terrible cop. But then, out of the blue, the gang’s leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), shows back up in town and his mere presence sets Erin off on a single-minded pursuit of vengeance.
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Another part of old-fashioned noirs that Destroyer borrows from is its insistence on taking its time. Destroyer is not a hurry to get anywhere, parcelling out its backstory in drips and drabs, requiring both its protagonist and the viewer to take the back roads in order to reach the destination. There are lengthy detours devoted to the hazing of one of the group’s more emotionally vulnerable members (Zach Villa) when Erin was undercover, Bradley Whitford continues his recent career shift into playing slimy bad guys for a spell, and there are more scenes of Nicole Kidman stumbling around in a drunken stupor than than you can shake a stick out. And since the film is almost exactly two entire hours long, it can really start to drag at many a point. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi take all this time to tell a very simple story but don’t actually have enough substantive content to earn that runtime. Destroyer is not a film lacking for characters, but none of them save for Erin are all that developed aside from what presence their actor or actress could bring to the role, mostly content to hit the easy sleazeball notes in various different permutations – the tone is set pretty early on when Erin is forced to give a handjob to a lead in order to find out where one of Silas’ former associates is located.
That’s a major problem since the emotional crux of the film and Erin’s character is dependent on her former relationships with Chris and Silas, neither of which receive as much screen time or depth as they really should’ve. It’s ponderous in a way that it never manages to earn. Too much of the screenplay feels like the male writers went “find + replace” on a boilerplate antihero cop script, the kind that still clog up Prestige TV schedules even today, for any male pronouns with female pronouns. I’m reminded way too much of the “Featuring a Strong Female Lead” sketch from The Break with Michelle Wolf and the “Gritty BAFTA” sketch from The Kevin Bishop Show the more that I think about Destroyer sans its two aces in the hole. But, man, what aces in the hole. The first is the fact that the eternally underrated Karyn Kusama is behind the camera, riding high off of 2015’s gripping The Invitation and applying that same crushing sense of atmosphere and menace to Destroyer. A bank heist gone sideways real bad and subsequent foot chase at the halfway mark are absolutely thrilling, and she makes every single burst of violence wince-inducing and visceral. Her cinematographer Julie Kirkwood is also an invaluable asset, too, dredging up an LA that really does seem to just suck one’s soul right out of their body the longer one remains immersed in it.
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As for ace #2? That would be Nicole Kidman and you have no idea just how happy I am to FINALLY see her be good again in a good movie! In fact, not just good, sensational. In the present-day scenes, especially, Kidman is borderline unrecognisable, an emaciated, pale ghost of a human being, a glance at whom can instantly tell you that this is somebody who has been hurting deep down for decades and refused to take the steps required to fix that. When she stares at people in anger, which happens a lot, the potency of those stares could melt steel beams, they broadcast hate-waves directly to the very core of one’s soul. When she flies off the handle and violently attacks people, which happens a lot, she’s genuinely scary not because she’s capable – as is befitting a gritty noir flick, this is not a movie where anonymous asshats on YouTube comments are going to complain about a frail woman unrealistically beating the shit out of men twice her size because of a secret feminist agenda on the part of the filmmakers – but because they are the desperate lashings of a woman who has given up on herself so completely that it’s like she wants somebody to murder her. If there was a soul in Erin, it’s long gone, and that’s what makes Kidman’s dramatic turn (both physically and emotionally) work so well: it’s not soulless, but there’s absence of the soul where even she doesn’t know how to make it come back.
I think Destroyer is a film that I more appreciate than fully like, primarily down to those aforementioned pacing issues and a screenplay that isn’t nearly as deep or developed as it likes to think it is. But Kidman is utterly spectacular in the central role, the kind of tour-de-force performance that transcends its rather naked attempts to bag her an Oscar by still being an actual performance if you strip away the physical transformation, and Kusama continues to restate her directorial abilities after her unjust exile from the American film landscape. Maybe bump that grade up another notch if you’re less cantankerous and running on fumes than I am when you get the chance to watch the film.