Karyn Kusama is a director who has crossed many genres; from boxing movie (Girlfight), through to sci-fi (Aeon Flux) and horror (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation). She now takes on the LA Noir, teaming up with her regular writing team and new collaborator Nicole Kidman. Unfortunately, in the vein of Charlize Theron in Monster or Margot Robbie in I. Tonya, much of the focus or ‘buzz’ about Destroyer is going to be on the de-glamming of Nicole Kidman in the central role of Erin Bell. It can be seen as Oscar bait when beautiful actresses make themselves “ugly” for a role, but it will be a surprise if Destroyer DOES attract much awards attention. It’s too spiky and uncomfortable and is built around an extremely flawed and selfish woman who makes mistakes.
I absolutely loved it.
Everything about Destroyer is made with maximum discomfort in mind. The score is scratchy, the cinematography is over-exposed and bleached out and the protagonist is not here to win your approval or be liked. It starts, as with most classic noirs, with a body. Detective Erin Bell is a ramshackle, stumbling, hungover mess of a cop but she has a personal connection to the case and a drive to take it on. The narrative is in two halves – present day and 17 years before, when Bell went undercover with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers, led by Silas (Toby Kebbell) and Petra (Tatiana Maslany). Bell made some questionable decisions during that time which have ramifications to the present day. The past is catching up with her.
Another aspect of Destroyer that makes it so refreshing is that it is not just a portrait of a flawed woman, but a flawed mother. Bell has an estranged and strained relationship with her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who chooses to live with her step-father Ethan (Scoot McNairy) over her mother. Bell does attempt to intervene when her daughter makes questionable decisions (dropping out of school, drinking and clubbing underage, hooking up with an older boyfriend), but does so in her own abrasive way, whilst being a drunk herself – so that goes about as well as you can imagine.
The acting is, of course, one of the main strengths of Destroyer. Kidman is predictably phenomenal, playing the younger Bell, still filled with hope and love as a complete contrast to the older, jaded cop, living with the consequences of her choices. Kidman’s physicality in the role really transforms her, she studied the gait of coyotes to achieve the unusual “stalking” movements of her character. She also trained with military experts to give her more awareness of “scouting out” a scene. Bell is wounded in more ways than one and Kidman communicates this with heart-breaking humanity. Sebastian Stan has managed to stretch his acting muscles in last year’s I, Tonya and now this, showing there is more to him than Bucky Barnes. Kebell seems somewhat miscast, although the terrible wigs on the flashback versions of both Silas and Petra don’t help. Bradley Whitford has a brilliant cameo as a sleazy lawyer, appearing like the comic relief in a Shakespeare play.
Apart from the dodgy wigs mentioned above, the costume, hair and make-up is actually astounding for such a low-budget film. The aging up of Maslany, Kebbell and Zach Villa (who plays gang-member Arturo) in the present-day scenes is subtle and effective. Of course, it is the character of Erin Bell herself who has the biggest transformation – not just from the actress playing her but also between the two “halves” of the character. The hair and make up in the present day section is incredible and the little touches of boot-cut jeans and flat boots really add to the sense that she doesn’t give a crap about herself or what she looks like. The younger Bell has long hair and freckles, emphasizing her more optimistic and naive nature at that time.
Destroyer goes through the twists and turns you would expect from a noir and has a cyclical narrative which rewards repeat viewings. The film is about cycles in more ways than one. Trying to escape yourself and your past, but ending up pursuing it instead. Also the cycles of abuse and neglect which one can try to break but often end up repeating. Erin Bell joins several “difficult” or “unlikeable” female protagonists from this year including Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Jeanette (played by Carey Mulligan in Wildlife), hopefully showing that women can be just as thorny, selfish and complicated as their male counterparts, and equally as compelling. These characters show both strength and weakness, they make bad choices and those choices have consequences, but they encourage compassion and empathy from the viewer.
Kusama is a fascinating director (check out The Invitation on Netflix if you haven’t seen it) and her next work should now be eagerly anticipated. The score by Theodore Shapiro is one of the best of the year, starting out confrontational and ending up much melodic and elegiac. The cinematography by Julie Kirkwood also does not make obvious choices. Instead of being a dark and dingy noir, it goes the opposite route of highlighting the dry, dusty and extremely bright light of Los Angeles. Destroyer succeeds on almost every technical level, as well as being filled with emotion and humanity. Seek out this small but intriguing film and give it your support.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany