Film Review: Destroyer

Directed by: Karyn Kusama; Runtime: 121 minutes
Grade: C+

If the measure of quality one uses to evaluate a film's strength is whether it made the individual feel something, regardless of what that feeling might be, then Destroyer could be seen as a roaring success. The latest film from The Invitation director Karyn Kusama takes great strides to make those watching get involved with the harrowing life of a gaunt, ramshackle police detective -- and mother -- whose past encounters while undercover continue to impact and, in ways, curse her life some decades later. The psychological and physical hits that she takes, the fear and guilt that she exudes, and the absence of an ability for her to lead a real life come together into an expressive portrait in Destroyer. Despite the raw emotions and weighted suspense, however, the film's intentions as a character study stop short of conveying a deeper understanding of what she endured and how she fully got to where she's at today, resulting in a dramatic onslaught -- fueled by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman -- that suffers from not bridging the right gaps from who she was and who she's become.

Destroyer takes place across two different timelines: the current era where Erin Bell is a very rough-around-the-edges detective working homicide cases, and in the past before the events that'd ultimately change her as a person. The two timelines are linked by a semi-psychotic criminal named Silas, positioned as an almost mythical arch-villain as he announces his continued existence to Erin through cryptic means. In the past, Erin's association with Silas (Toby Kebbel) and his drug-abusing criminal network showcase some of the lengths to which undercover agents will go to embed deeper into an outfit, the moral boundaries they're willing to bend or cross to maintain appearances. During the present, her attitude reveals what can happen when traumatic life events take their toll as she uses her methods to seek out Silas, before he reaches her. As the chronology jumps around, it paints a picture of her relationship with fellow undercover agent Chris (Sebastian Stan), as well as with her somewhat estranged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn).

As someone who usually isn't persuaded by Nicole Kidman's ability to transform into another character, instead usually just seeming like she's just slight tweaks of herself in every role, I was absolutely blown away at how deep she goes into Erin Bell and how unrecognizable she is for the entirety of Destroyer. Unkempt, scraggly, and inhumanely gaunt, her portrayal of Bell exists in that space of performances where you have to actively convince yourself that you're looking at a specific actor, elevating the transformative exhaustion and remorse that she's endured over the years. She's callous, but it's the kind of callous that indicates that there's heart and compassion underneath the harsh exterior, a testament to Kidman's thousand-yard stare glances and depleted body language as she procedurally lumbers between important contacts. She's a brave, talented detective whose disposition causes her to throw herself into harm's way with no care for her well-being, making for a compellingly unpredictable hero.

There's another side to Erin Bell, though, the one that exists in the past and made the mistakes that brought her to this point in the current era, and that's where Destroyer stumbles. As more gets revealed about how the younger Bell became entrenched with Silas' organized crime syndicate and built a relationship with fellow undercover agent Chris, the script from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi attempts to explore how she balances the self-sacrificial side of herself with a desire to embrace and appreciate life from a somewhat selfish perspective. It creates a unique dichotomy as she cements relationships, witnesses unsettling and manipulative behavior from the leader, and makes judgment calls about what she should ignore … and possibly participate in. The chronology grows screwy and disorienting, though, jumping between different steps in the past and the present to emphasize what's important to the thriller narrative at the time and conceal what's really important about the events surrounding Silas, with a twist at the end that's more of a fakeout than a deeper revelation.

Like The Invitation, director Kusama reaches her comfort zone in Destroyer with the bleakness of the human condition, the extent to which people will go for what they want/need and how that spreads out to the people around ‘em. Erin's methods, where she's willing to take herself to get the info she needs, lead to this being an uncomfortable button-pushing experience in certain aspects that exists to witness the absence of her boundaries, yet little more beyond that. A gap needs to be bridged here, to genuinely showcase how the earlier, more optimistic and ambitious version of Kidman's character morphs into the downtrodden one from the current era, and while some details lend themselves to interpretation about how she might've gotten there, they still seem like disparate entities. More needs to be known about that time in its middle, after tragedy and up till now, for Destroyer to come full circle the way it attempts to do in its final scene. Once the screen goes white at the end, though, the two Erin Bells seem like different people that have lots of time separating them for events to further shape ‘em , as Kusama's film hits those discomforting chords in her experiences without forming into a cohesive evolution.

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