Synopsis – A police detective reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her distant past in order to make peace.
My Take – I think by now we all know how much the awards circuit loves de-glamorized roles. A recent example of this be the Best Actress nomination of Melissa McCarthy for her role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (More on that later), who up until now had been repeatedly condemned for almost everything she does (with a few exceptions like Spy). However what’s most surprising from Oscar nominations this year would be the snubbing of Nicole Kidman for this film, which is quite absurd considering this Golden Globe-nominated performance, is indeed quite jaw dropping and the main highlight of this thriller from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight).
The actress who had famously donned a prosthetic nose for her Oscar winning role in ‘The Hours’ has here gone to greater and grittier lengths of transformation. Her eyes are sunken. Her skin is hardened. Her stare is provocatively hollow. Looking and moving like the living dead, here Kidman has transformed into one of the great female anti-heroes as Erin Bell, a Los Angeles homicide detective at the bottom of the bottle.
Thankfully, the film is also far more intriguing than a simple exercise in role reversal. A worthwhile film for filmgoers who love film noir in all its phases. Sure, in terms of plot lines and themes, it’s a film that most of us will have seen before, maybe even a few times. A growling, burnt-out and booze-loving detective with renegade tendencies, family problems and a scuffed leather jacket kicks down doors and rams the butt of a gun into bad guys’ heads until a final act of vengeance and penance cleanses their filthy soul. But what makes it satisfying is how it strikes notes of both fury and despair as grips you as we witness Kidman‘s detective raging and tearing down everything around her.
The story follows Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) a whispering, sleep-deprived and traumatized LAPD detective who’s stubborn, unfriendly, unliked and ravaged by time, alcohol and her past. Arriving late to the scene of a homicide, she takes one glance at the body, notices a gang tattoo, and already has an idea of how this investigation is going to proceed.
Sixteen years earlier, she was an undercover cop along with Chris (Sebastian Stan), and was tasked with investigating the illegal dealings of Silas (Toby Kebbell) and his gang consisting of Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Arturo (Zach Villa) and Toby (James Jordan). Convinced that Silas is once again back in action and taunting her, Erin is determined to stop him this time once and for all. Erin’s investigation is strictly off the books, so there are no statements or arrests or any of that boring procedural business. Just a whole lot of unreported stakeouts, chases, fights and gun battles.
Meanwhile Erin is also finding it difficult to connect with her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who despite living with her nice guy ex-husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy) is getting constantly into trouble and dating an older man, Jay (Beau Knapp), making things complicated for her and her investigation.
Sure, this isn’t a unique story line, though it is exceptionally well-told by director Karyn Kusama. There’s nothing like a good mystery that keeps diving deeper into the narrative before finally revealing the truth. This is often the trademark of a good, gritty, detective-driven crime drama in which you have to understand the past in order to understand the present. Everyone has secrets if you look hard enough and some of them may be worth killing over, the key is recognizing the difference.
This one is a complex story that blends the then and now to find an elusive bank robber and murderer. But while the film can be overwrought and mechanical, it’s an often gripping, well-crafted crime drama with distinction of its own in the genre, an almost always male-dominated one. It’s rare that a woman is placed in the role of the genre’s archetypal anti-hero, and rarer still that it’s handled so smoothly, without any posturing about bad-assedness or hand-wringing about likability. Bell is every bit as flawed a human as her male counterparts, and the men in her life are for the most part accessories or catalysts for her journey. Even her choices as an admittedly lacking mother avoid any of the burdens and bullshit that are usually foisted upon female characters.
This is not a touching tale of redemption and Erin’s maternal instincts are anything but traditional. Balancing her personal life and work is not really a priority, and she’s not concerned about what anyone might think of her. Erin does what needs to be done and isn’t afraid of a physical confrontation, though she isn’t always up to snuff.
Whether watching a flashback or her current search, she’s unquestionably tough in a way that fits her character’s bold personality and rugged exterior. Her pursuit of Silas isn’t motivated by justice but by vengeance and soul-destroying guilt. The schematic frame of the film penned by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (the duo who wrote the script for Kusama‘s underrated psychological horror gem The Invitation), is equal parts frustrating and illuminating. The flashbacks, in which Kidman appears more resplendently herself, gradually explain how Bell came to be such an empty shell of a woman, estranged from her teenage daughter.
Here, director Kasuma directs the action with a swagger, especially when she strips the film down to its essentials, it’s gripping as hell. There’s a knockout centerpiece sequence that slides from stakeout to shootout to street chase, with minimal dialogue and Kidman’s and Maslany’s respective physicality doing more work than their makeup. It’s testament to them both that a film can have Nicole Kidman kicking in a door and firing an assault rifle and it not seem odd.
However, something these elements don’t always blend together perfectly. Especially the final scenes, which meander, and slightly dulls the film’s final gut punch. It’s likely that the big, climactic reveal won’t perfectly weather repeated viewings. Even though it never becomes more than the sum of its parts, though, those parts are more than significant on their own. And of course there is the slow pacing which may/may not affect the perspective of someone who is actually looking for an easy watch, which this film is clearly not.
As I mentioned above, Nicole Kidman is an absolute beast here. Her performance is truly enthralling, and quite frankly, the highlight of the entire picture. Her transformation alone is remarkable and recalls Charlize Theron’s grit in Monster. She submerges herself in the character both physically and emotionally. You can easily feel her pain and bleak persona. Even her joyous moments, as rare as they are, were well interpreted by Kidman. She plays the rough anti-heroine with such authenticity, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen.
She also gets solid support from Sebastian Stan as her former partner, Scoot McNairy and Shamier Anderson. Toby Kebbell is appropriately menacing, while James Jordan, Zach Villa and Tatiana Maslany also shine. Bradley Whitford has some fun nibbling on the scenery in his sole scene. Jade Pettyjohn and Beau Knapp are absolutely sincere in their wrath and bewilderment. On the whole, ‘Destroyer’ is a gripping, thrilling and intriguing thriller anchored by its wonderful central performance.
Directed – Karyn Kusama
Rated – R
Run Time – 121 minutes