Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is not only a transformative film for her career, it presents the classically beautiful Nicole Kidman has a hardened, drink-sick detective. Her skin is tough leather, encasing a fire that burns so intensively inside her that she breaths smoke, ready to explode on everyone that crosses her. Destroyer celebrated its US premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018, blowing away an audience unready for the grim, bleak look into the tug-o-war of cops and robbers.
Destroyer is littered with great performances and top-notch camerawork, but the real heroes are the special effects team and the make-up department. Yes, of course, Nicole Kidman looks impressively withered throughout- with a jaundice that becomes unmistakably yellow by the 3rd act- but navigating both past and present, we get to see two very different version of each character. From young and dumb, to old and cracked, we see every actor at the beginning and end of their story, with details of their lives peppered in to fill out the main points relevant to the film.
“[A] grim, bleak look into the tug-o-war of cops and robbers.”
In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays detective Erin Bell, forever reeling from the tragic events of a failed undercover operation in the FBI. Fifteen years prior, she hit rock bottom, remaining there ever since, wallowing in grief and guilt. She is unable to wash the blood of that fateful day from her hands. No amount of alcohol can make her forget, and no apology is strong enough to erase the past. The fragile relationship she has with her daughter is so strained that every interaction begins and ends as an argument. And if things in Erin’s life weren’t already complicated enough, the man she holds responsible for her shattered existence has reemerged after years in hiding, threatening to burn down all that she has left.
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Erin is a lone wolf. She insulates herself from her family, and from a partner that is the closest thing she’s had to a friend in over a decade. Unable to forgive herself, she lives in a feedback loop of regrets. She kicks herself for waking up on the floor after a night of heavy drinking. She pistol whips a suspect because she’s still boiling over from a fight with her daughter’s boyfriend. She screams at the world to take accountability for its actions because all she can do to forget her own is drink until she no longer knows her own name. She pushes everyone away because if she has nothing left to lose, than she doesn’t have anything that can be taken away from her. She is dangerous because she doesn’t value her own life, and will not hesitate to break the rules and play dirty, if it means finally getting even.
“Kusama builds suspense and fear in this straight-forward police procedural as expertly as she has in each of her more horror-centric efforts.”
There’s entertainment in watching a normal, average police cadet morph into a drugged out, tattooed undercover officer. But that character’s story ends when the mission is over. Detective Erin Bell is who that character goes on to become after the curtain falls. And how does someone so exposed remain hidden while navigating her way through that familiar criminal underground? How does she not immediately find herself in the cross-hairs of enemies that wouldn’t think twice about killing her and her family? Kusama’s follow up to the 2015 horror hit The Invitation is a shift in genres but no less sinister. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s storytelling is as strong as ever and while more procedural than the unpredictability of their previous collaboration, Destroyer is a film that will surprise you with its explosive subtly.
Kusama builds suspense and fear in this straight-forward police procedural as expertly as she has in each of her more horror-centric efforts. There is a scene early on that establishes a character from her past (Zach Villa) as alive, and in hiding. But during a flashback to their younger selves, we see this character playing Russian Roulette against his will. We shouldn’t be scared. We should be on edge. We know that he lives and yet this moment is still painful to watch. A lot of this dread is due in part to Toby Kebbell’s Silas, an unpredictable and cruel son-of-a-bitch with a piercing stare. When you look into his eyes, not only are you sure we has no soul, but you feel he may swallow yours at any time, just to see what it tastes like.
“Destroyer is a mostly by-the-books story of a cop with a score to settle, but there’s enough in the presentation of that format to surprise you.”
Destroyer is a mostly by-the-books story of a cop with a score to settle, but there’s enough in the presentation of that format to surprise you. The film deserves all the award buzz surrounding it, even now, but don’t go in looking for a revolutionary new approach to this familiar story. Nicole Kidman’s performance is intense and emotional, but it’s rarely anything more, and I wished I had been more surprised by her choices in the end. Destroyer is a perfectly captured LA cop thriller, and deserves the same level of respect as every great film before it, but when the carpet is pulled out from underneath you, you don’t have far too fall. I was reminded of the Coen Bros Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and how the final moments of the film completely change how we see our protagonist. In some ways, we are meant to feel the same way about Detective Erin Bell, but in a moment so focused on highlighting its main character, I instead found a deeper appreciation for the creators, and the choices they made to craft a clever presentation of their material.
A late edition the the 2018 Fantastic Fest program, Destroyer celebrated it’s Texas premiere September 25th and is currently scheduled for theatrical release December 25th. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!