If there is one thing we remember from Karyn Kusama's thriller Destroyer, it is that Nicole Kidman's character, a Los Angeles homicide detective named Erin Bell, is old. And exhausted. And strung out. And stressed. And you get the picture. Much of the film's budget apparently went to the extensive make-up applied to Kidman's usually beatific porcelain face and neck to make sure we understand that Erin is a wreck. Every wrinkle, every crease, her dried out lips, her sunken cheeks all tell the story of a character who is on the edge in every conceivable way-physically, emotionally, and especially spiritually and morally-and is about to slide over into the abyss. Similar to Abel Ferrara's early-'90s indie shocker Bad Lieutenant (1992), Destroyer is about an enforcer of the law who is a personal disaster, although Kidman's character isn't quite as willfully depraved and corrupt as Harvey Keitel's titular lieutenant. Instead, she is simply desperate.
Her desperation derives largely from an event that transpired 17 years earlier in which, as a young, newly minted police officer, she was recruited to go undercover with a dangerous gang that ended up plotting a daring bank heist that somehow went horribly wrong. Erin was paired with another younger detective named Chris (Sebastian Stan), with whom she became romantically involved and who is no longer around. We get bits and pieces of this past-tense story scattered throughout the present-day story as Erin methodically tracks down the leader of the gang, a mysterious sadist named Silas (Toby Kebbell), who had disappeared after the heist and has now suddenly re-emerged-at least that's what Erin believes. Those around her are skeptical, especially since Erin looks and carries herself like she just emerged from the grave, although she still has enough juice to take on anyone who crosses her path. The thrust of the narrative has her working her way through her old gang mates, some of whom are dying, some of whom have gone straight, and some of whom are still up to no good, each of which gets her closer to Silas. Meanwhile, she is trying to manage her personal life, which involves an ex-husband and a 16-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) who loathes her with every ounce of her being and doesn't mind making that perfectly clear, especially in the presence of her skeevy older boyfriend (Beau Knapp).
Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also penned Kusama's previous film, the riveting, slow-burn supernatural drama The Invitation (2015), Destroyer has a number of really good scenes that never quite add up. The film as a whole feels derivative and clumsily provocative as it wallows in some of the worst aspects of human behavior with little suggestion of redemption. It's not quite nihilistic, but it feels heavy and laborious. Kusama, who first gained attention with her indie debut Girlfight (2000) and the Diablo Cody-penned horror satire Jennifer's Body (2009), is a first-rate stylist who knows how to both generate tension and delve into psychological depths, but too much of Destroyer is simply too obvious. Kidman delivers a strong performance, but the extensive and attention-grabbing nature of her world-weary make-up becomes almost instantly distracting, a kind of constant visual shorthand to remind us of how hard the film is trying to unsettle, provoke, and disturb.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Annapurna Pictures
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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