destroyer review

Nicole Kidman gives a tour de force performance as a damaged cop on the edge in Karyn Kusama‘s twisty, brutal Destroyer. Blending a crime thriller framing device with a character drama focus, Destroyer is one of the year’s best films.

Detective Erin Bell staggers into the crime scene –literally. One look at this cop and we can tell she’s in terrible shape – a shuffling, ambling mess, barely able to keep her head up. She has no business being at this scene, but she’s here anyway. The victim lays face-down by a reservoir, next to a 100 dollar bill stained purple from a dye pack likely used in a bank robbery. Three distinct marks are tattooed on the back of the victim’s neck. Erin recognizes something here – something she’s not sharing. She practically crawls back to her, and then we see it – she has the same tattoo as the victim on the back of her neck.

The secrets Erin is hiding – and the explanation for her terrible state – slowly come to light in Karyn Kusama’s brutal, unrelenting Destroyer. Kusama, who helmed the slow-burn wonder The Invitation, flips the script, taking the type of role usually reserved for male stars – the washed-up, hard-boiled cop – and giving it to a woman. Nicole Kidman plays the part, and at this point it’s becoming almost blasé to point out what a dynamite actress Kidman is, but hey, let’s do it: she’s a fucking powerhouse here. A megaton warhead prime to explode, she stalks through Destroyer looking ready to fight, die or both. Nearly unrecognizable under some carefully applied makeup, Kidman’s Erin Bell is a puking, punching mess – she gets her ass kicked as much as she kicks ass, and it’s painful to watch either way.

Through flashbacks intermingling with an ongoing narrative, we learn that Erin spent a chunk of time undercover with a gang of bank robbers. She was teamed-up with an FBI agent, played by Sebastian Stan, and the two undercover officers grew very intimate. While it takes some time to figure out just happened with the bank robbers, it’s clear from the get-go that something went very, very wrong. Lives were lost and ruined, and Erin is now convinced that the gang leader – a creepy weirdo named Silas (Toby Kebbell) – has come out of hiding for revenge.

In the midst of all this, Erin has to grapple with her personal life. Her teen daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) is lashing out, dating a much older guy (who is a complete asshole), and possibly headed down the same dark path as her mother. Erin knows she wasn’t a good mother, and she also knows she’ll likely never be a good mother. But she still wants the best for her daughter – she’s just helpless to make anything happen.

Helplessness is a feeling that Erin is constantly, violently striking back against. She may not be able to fix her daughter’s problems, but she’s going to make damn sure she gets to the bottom of what’s going on with Silas. She tracks down people connected to the criminal, including other members of the old bank robbing gang (including Tatiana Maslany in a memorable but underutilized part), and a sleazy lawyer (played with smug, banal menace by Bradley Whitford). Anyone who dares to give her the wrong answer usually gets the butt of a gun smashed hard into their faces. The “cop not playing by the rules” routine is cliche, but Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi manage to make the events unfolding here seem raw and fresh.

Kusama’s direction is key. The filmmaker uses a continued motif of slow-to-fast push-ins – usually on Erin in profile, strutting across a parking bathed in burned-out LA sun; sitting in her car in the rain; stalking down a street with an assault weapon in hand. The filmmaker also takes time to find beauty in all this ugliness. A montage concluding the film is overwhelmingly gorgeous, full of insert shots of swaying trees, gulls breaking across a clear-blue sky, and a flashback to an event unfolding in the midst of a blizzard. The arrival of this montage is like a gut-punch; a reminder of the good amongst the bad.

Editing is another brilliant feature of Destroyer. Editor Plummy Tucker (what a great name!) deftly cuts back and forth between past and present, letting the story unfold organically, taking time to bring the whole picture into focus. In less-skilled hands, the constant cutting could’ve become confusing, or worse, annoying. Not so here, as we’re hooked and being slowly reeled in. The end result is a movie that’s simultaneously a character study and an addicting crime thriller.

But really, for all of Destroyer‘s great features, this is Kidman’s show. The actress has played dark and gritty characters before, but not quite like this. Erin is so terribly damaged that you often find yourself wondering how she’s even functioning. This level of emotional and physical decline could’ve strayed into heavy-handedness, but Kidman never lets it get that far. She always knows how to play it; how to balance her rage and pain. A character as abrasive and violent as this could also easily alienate an audience  – yet we’re sympathetic to Erin, precisely because Kidman can bring out the humanity in the part. “I’m a bad person,” Erin matter-of-factly tells her daughter late in the film, and we believe her. But we also believe that she wants to find a way to make things right, and that makes all the difference.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net