Powered by Kidman’s fierce performance and Kusama’s deliberate filmmaking, Destroyer makes for an effectively pulpy work of high-art storytelling.
Having already appeared in one major awards season contender this year (Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased), Nicole Kidman returns with a dramatic starring vehicle of her own in the form of Karyn Kusama’s grim crime drama, Destroyer. Kusama is perhaps best known for her work in the horror genre, with films like the cult horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, the “Her Only Living Son” segment of the all-female horror anthology XX, and the Hollywood Hills suspense-thriller The Invitation under her belt. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Destroyer is a moody detective noir drama that feels like a horror movie at its core, and in a good way. Powered by Kidman’s fierce performance and Kusama’s deliberate filmmaking, Destroyer makes for an effectively pulpy work of high-art storytelling.
Kidman stars in Destroyer as Erin Bell, an LAPD detective who – along with a federal agent named Chris (Sebastian Stan) – went undercover with a gang in the California desert several years earlier, but to terrible results. Erin’s struggle to make peace with her personal demons since then have left her wrecked both physically and mentally, and had a similar effect on her relationships with her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) and now ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). Barely able to keep herself together, Erin now spends most of her time at work… when she’s not trying to drink herself to death at a bar, that is.
Everything change when Erin learns that Silas (Toby Kebbell), the cruel leader of the gang she infiltrated all those years ago, has emerged from hiding and resumed his criminal ways. Searching for some payback, Erin begins to work through the remaining members of Silas’ old crew one by one in an effort to find him, even as (often, painful) memories from her past begin to resurface along the way. But what will Erin do once she actually finds Silas… and is there even a future (much less, a happy one) for her, after all of this is over?
Written by Phil Hay (who’s also married to Kusama) and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, Destroyer is comparable to something like HBO’s True Detective; not only in terms of its brooding atmosphere, but also in the way its narrative unfolds across multiple timelines. Like that anthology series, Destroyer continuously goes back in time in order to examine the corrosive effect that Erin’s previous mistakes have had on her well-being over the years – in turn, offering more insight into her actions and choices in the present along the way. This also allows the film to work as a character study conducted through the lens of a hard-boiled crime narrative, with Erin’s character arc serving to simultaneously ground and elevate Destroyer‘s pulpier elements into something more substantial. The movie still hits a number of familiar beats for this type of crime noir story, but (as always) it’s the execution and fresh ingredients that make the tried and true formula really work.
Kusama’s strong direction is also a big part of why Destroyer thrives as much as it does. In terms of craftsmanship, Kusama has a firm handle on not only the film’s quieter scenes and one-on-one character interactions, but also its white-knuckle action sequences and dramatically horrifying moments of suspense. Destroyer is further buoyed by A Simple Favor composer Theodore Shapiro’s nightmarish and booming score, which can make scenes where Erin is just driving her car a long distance or walking somewhere feel unnerving and keeps audiences on-edges at all times. The film paints an equally desolate and squalid portrait of its California backdrop, with DP Julie Kirkwood (The Monster) photographing the scenery in a fashion that makes Los Angeles and the rest of SoCal feel as lonely, dangerous and worse for wear as, well, Erin herself.
As “destroyed” as Erin looks, it’s the emotional aspects of Kidman’s performance that really sell the character as being a truly grizzled detective, down to their hard-drinking habit and mess of a personal life. Destroyer never strays from Erin’s point of view either, and that forces audiences to really empathize and understand how she came to be as hard-edged and damaged as she is. That also means that every other character in the movie is filtered through Erin’s perspective, be they people she loves (or loved) or the seedy characters that she encounters over the course of her investigation. Fortunately, Kusama provides her impressive supporting cast – which, in addition to Stan, McNairy, and Kebbell, includes Bradley Whitford, Tatiana Maslany, and even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Natalia Cordova-Buckley in a small role – with enough room to help fill in the blanks with their performances and really show (not just tell) what these characters represent to Erin.
The fact that Destroyer both stars and was directed by a woman is also important, and certainly impacts the way it tells this particular story. While the film is, in many ways, a pretty by the numbers detective noir drama, it’s also subversive in the way it handles gender and, in the case of certain narrative threads, really explores the genre’s more traditional themes from a feminine perspective. Had Destroyer gone even further with its approach in this respect, it arguably would have resulted in a truly ground-breaking and innovative piece of storytelling. As it stands, however, it’s a well-made crime flick that succeeds in being unconventional in more ways than it doesn’t.
Overall, though, Destroyer is worth checking out just for Kusama’s direction and Kidman’s performance alone. It might not be quite as revolutionary or daring as some of this year’s awards season frontrunners (especially those that are led by women on either or both sides of the camera), but it’s a rewarding piece of pulpy storytelling that deserves to be appreciated on its own terms. Heck, when you really think about, Destroyer is probably a better version of “True Detective starring Nicole Kidman” than the real thing would be.
Destroyer begins playing in U.S. theaters on Tuesday, December 25. It is 123 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use.
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