Film Review: Destroyer.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Destroyer.

The 2018 film, Destroyer, is a dark and complex crime thriller directed by Karyn Kusama. It follows LAPD Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) as she investigates a crime, reconnecting her with a gang from a botched undercover operation in her early career, which has had life-changing consequences. The investigation is as much about Erin’s character and past as it is about the crime.

Destroyer was written by Kusama’s regular collaborators, her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi. Kusama’s first feature film, Girlfight (written and directed by Kusama), debuted in 2000, and won both the Grand Jury Prize and the directing award at Sundance.

The film, a boxing movie that launched Michelle Rodriguez’s film career, first introduced Kusama's complex female protagonists, and was a refreshing and unique voice in genre cinema.

Kusama won acclaim for her successive films, Jennifer’s Body (2009) and The Invitation (2015).

Destroyer’s Erin, grim and hardened, continues on her mission. She cannot move forward until she has reckoned with her past.

Image from film Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama, produced by Fred Berger et al, streamed on Kanopy database.

DESTROYER

Destroyer, the most recent film from the enervating director Karyn Kusama (whose body of work ranges from realist drama, science fiction and horror, all told through her unapologetically feminist lens), is a journey deep into the heart of Film Noir, with all of the tension, risk, danger and sleuthing any viewer might expect from the long , rich legacy of crime thrillers that precede it.

Detective Erin Bell (Kidman), is sixteen years on from a disastrous undercover assignment, in which her role to infiltrate a murderous crew of bank robbers turned sour in terrible, life altering ways. Her career in tatters and her personal world a blank slate of grief, Bell finds herself drawn back into the orbit of the gang that took the light from her life, and the chance at some kind of closure just within arms reach. As she makes her way, one by one, through the thieves and murderers that she once pretended were her colleagues, she will be forced to confront truths about her own past, the ramifications of terrible decisions, and whether a better tomorrow can be salvaged from the wreckage of today.

It’s a striking movie, and like all of Kusama’s work, it’s a movie whose heart is full of longing, doubt and passion. It’s a traditional Los Angeles gritty crime tale down to its bones, but the characters that stagger and twist inside its machinations feel even more lost, more desperate than we’re used to seeing in a picture of its type.

The traditional action cinema language tells us that any suffering our hero goes through is there only to add fuel to their innate heroism, and to add to the righteousness of their inevitable victory. Dead partners, physical injury, disgraceful failure – all of these will be redeemed as our hero follows their arc of victory. Destroyer casts aside all of these safety nets, and much like Lynne Ramsey’s excellent 2017 feature You Were Never Really Here (also available through Kanopy), it shows us how a life scarred by violence and tragedy is a life forever changed. The burden of trauma is a weight that can metastasise and crush its carrier as it sits with them for years – unchanging in its blank, cold starkness even as time has its way with the human host. In this sense, Destroyer and You Were Never Really Here feel as though they could be happening just around the corner from one another.

And it’s this sense of burden that Kidman leans into drastically in the film, at times teetering on the edge of parody as we glide through the lonely canyons and cracked pathways of this haunted vision of Los Angeles with her.  Ever the chameleon, here she wears an armour of haggard skin, chipped grey teeth and the alternating deathly slouch or twitching live-wire energy of someone on their very last legs. There are times where the totality of her undeniably committed performance and the relentless grimness of her quest almost become cartoonish, but the heart of the film, it’s core of compassion saves it from descending into a portrait of misery for its own sake.

With starring roles in this, The Beguiled and The Killing Of a Sacred Deer all coming out in fairly quick succession, Nicole Kidman has shown a willingness to continue finding projects that challenge not only her, but the public’s idea of who she is.  At a time when she could be making safe choices, it’s invigorating to see her journeying into stranger, more challenging waters. Perhaps too intense for some, the world of Destroyer is a rich harvest for fans of both dark crime drama and storytellers at the top of their game unmercifully pushing the boundaries of their craft.

Further reading

  • "Polite Movies? Not Interested: Karyn Kusama, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi on 'Destroyer'." Boo, Bernard.  PopMatters, Jan 11, 2019 (article
  • "Kusama discusses 'Destroyer's' physical, moral challenges". Anderson, Jeffrey M. San Francisco Examiner; 17 Jan 2019, p.15. (article
  • "The Filmmaker Karyn Kusama Explores the Many Dimensions of Women’s Rage". Smallwood, Christine. New York Times, Dec 20, 2018. (article)
  • "Karyn Kusama". Gordon, Bette & Kusama, Karyn . BOMB, no. 73, 1 October 2000, Issue, pp.74-79 (article)
  • Contemporary American independent film from the margins to the mainstream / Holmlund, C. &  Wyatt, J (eds); London ; New York : Routledge ; 2005 (ebook)
  • The violent woman femininity, narrative, and violence in contemporary American cinema / Neroni, H ; Albany : State University of New York Press ; c2005 (ebook)
  • Afterimages : On Cinema, Women and Changing Times / Mulvey, L. London : Reaktion Books, Limited ; 2020 (ebook)
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