Running time: 123 minutes
Written by: Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
Featuring: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford and Sebastian Stan
Shelby: [to erin] “I felt safe because i was with you. I knew that you were strong… and that you would protect me.”
Each year, especially in the last quarter there are an endless number of movies that have been crafted by eager writers as well as directors to offer something more than the monstrous blockbusters that permeate the modern movie marketplace, to give more than the increasingly Disnification we are witnessing as the years roll by. These movies seek to also elicit emotional results as well as hopefully extend their life beyond the movie theatre into awards consideration so that they might live on in respect to what cinema is as well as what it is to become. What we also see each year is that there are many more films that miss the mark completely for reasons too numerous to name here, so that only the cream rises to the very top. The other vital factor that comes into play are the people in front of the camera which can be the deciding factor in getting the movie produced, in this case the central actor in this new movie is Nicole Kidman who over the past three decades has proven herself to be the actor of her generation.
Which brings me to this new movie, now available on DVD and streaming, that is the dramatic thriller “Destroyer” (2018) a film that on one level may seem like a feminist film but falls short on that as well as being a gripping story, it at once promises so much but delivers little, an example that proves plot as well as narrative must be combined with three dimensional characters that cohabit the screen together, not pulling at each other to deliver what must have been a disappointment to all involved. Watching “Destroyer” it is obvious why Kidman was drawn to play a character like Erin Bell, she gets to create a person that has lived a life, a tough one where she has lost much but is willing to regain some kind of redemption as well as a modicum of vengeance. This is also a character that is rarely seen played by a woman as these types of archetypes, that is the burnt-out cop are almost always portrayed by men. This is also where this film is almost unique and comes into its own, that is not only that it is a female actress playing the part but the look of Kidman is so anti-beauty it is almost distracting to a point that is almost ridiculous. However, this is exactly where the film as well as the character is required to journey to as one only need to think about almost all portrayals of female police officers who are protagonists, they are almost always young (sometimes ingénues), athletic, good looking as well as righteous no matter who their antagonists are. “Destroyer” bucks all of these elements, in doing this it offers something rare in cinema, originality.
The film itself concerns LAPD detective Erin Bell arrives on the scene of a John Doe murder and informs the responding officers that she knows the identity of the murderer. At the police station, Erin receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack in an unmarked envelope. Using a contact at the FBI, she confirms that the bill is from a bank robbery committed by a California gang many years prior that she and her former partner Chris were embedded in as undercover officers. She tells her superiors that she believes the bill to be proof that the gang’s leader, Silas, is once again active. Erin is forced to work her way through the remaining members of the gang in order to find Silas.
“Destroyer” has been directed by Karyn Kusama who burst onto the scene with the excellent “Girlfight” (2000) which she also wrote, since then though she has been working occasionally but seemed to be MIA until the tense thriller “The Invitation” (2015) which prove she could harness a tight story with interesting visuals as well as motivate actors into very good performances. Here Kusama does something similar with an expansive story that has to work on more levels than she is used to. The weakness with “Destroyer” is the screenplay by frequent Kusama collaborators screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi who have not shown any great strength with neo-noir which this movie is very much a part of. To write a film like “Destroyer” accurately with the right feel there needs to be a deep understanding of the genre, as well as the reason for its very existence in terms of its history and the motivations of its characters in an inherent way.
As I have stated “Destroyer” is based around the performance of Nicole Kidman who as usual is excellent creating a three-dimensional person that has to display a variety of emotions onscreen as well as being present in many situations, such as being undercover, being with her wayward daughter, acting cruel and many others that are complex requiring understanding of her place in the narrative as well as how to play where the film actually ends up. Kidman is not the only great aspect of “Destroyer’s” casting, in fact there are many fantastic character actors present in this film, led first and foremost by Sebastian Stan as the principal’s partner. The rest of the cast is made up with actors who are all able to deliver in whatever they are tasked with in Tatiana Maslany, Toby Kebbell, Scoot McNairyand Bradley Whitford. The problems arise with the fact that none of the characters are particularly memorable or interesting, even Kebbell who should have the best part as a quasi-cult leader is never let off his leash long enough to make an impact something he has in common with the rest of the cast which is a crime.
Now while I wanted to love this film for what it was attempting to do onscreen, that is portray the main character with a warts and all personality, someone who had seen everything, had lost much but had some integrity I felt that this character as well as Kidman’s performance did not match with the actual plot and narrative. “Destroyer” has so many elements firmly in place that it is close to being an excellent film, one that should have received at least some awards attention. It has a genuine look and feel of a modern neo-noir movie, it has the bones of a decent LA story that takes in some interesting locales, it is stacked with the kind of noirish characters seen in many great movies and it has real talent from top to bottom. What it required was some real darkness as well as authenticity in its antagonists that ring true while also being a little larger than life, this would have been in juxtaposition to the very dour character oif Erin Bell who is in opposition to almost everyone and everything in her own narrative.