At the start of Destroyer, Nicole Kidman’s Detective Erin Bell wakes up bleary-eyed behind the wheel of a car parked in the outskirts of bright and sunny Los Angeles. After stumbling out of her car and following her fellow detectives on foot, she happens across a crime scene. Much to the derision of her colleagues, Erin only has to examine the body and a dye-stained banknote before she claims to know who the killer is.
Despite the darkness of director Karyn Kusama’s relentlessly grim crime story, this sun-scorched opening sets a tone that the film maintains ferociously for the entire running time. Although it’s primarily being praised as a character study, with a powerful, “glammed-down” performance by Kidman, you can rely on the filmmakers involved to do more than simply explore the exploits of a cop with a vendetta.
The film takes place across two timeframes. The first takes place 17 years ago, with Erin as a fresh-faced FBI recruit who takes part in an undercover sting on a cult-like gang of bank robbers, along with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan). The present-day action follows Erin as she seeks to prove that the charismatic leader of that gang, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has become active again, and put a stop to him once and for all.
As promised, Kidman is terrific in the lead role, charting a progression over time that’s far more than the skin-deep visual trickery used to distinguish the young Erin from the present-day one. The former is represented in utterly seamless digital work by Lola VFX (the company that does Marvel Studios’ de-ageing effects) in complete contrast with the latter, which is held up by Bill Corso’s transformative make-up work.
Both Corso and Kidman should have received recognition in this year’s Oscar nominations, not least because their efforts don’t overpower one another. Some have called the make-up distracting and argued that Kidman doesn’t need it, but these criticisms have the ring of being too conscious of the movie star playing the part, even as she utterly disappears into her role.
Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (the duo who wrote the script for Kusama’s underrated psychological horror gem The Invitation) explore recognisable frustrations at the state of the world as it is. Erin is hardly squeaky clean in either her professional or personal life, but her righteous anger in the face of an obvious moral collapse fuels the film’s journey into purgatory.
Although Kidman is easily the headliner, there are excellent performances all round, not least from Stan, who has made a superb showing as a character actor between this and last year’s I, Tonya. Elsewhere, Kebbell elevates a character that might usually be played by a piss-taking James Franco, and Tatiana Maslany gives Kidman a run for her money with a chameleonic turn as his acolyte girlfriend.
The cast is further rounded out by Bradley Whitford, as a corrupt lawyer who perfectly lays out the film’s rotten worldview with just a few precise one-liners, and Scoot McNairy and Jade Pettyjohn, who shine through as Erin’s bitterly estranged husband and daughter respectively. Overall, the film’s ambitious scope is more than matched by its stars.
There are few things about Destroyer‘s plot that you could call unique, at least without getting into spoiler territory. If you expect that the team behind The Invitation might do more with the gang and their cultish adoration of Silas, you may come away disappointed, but then they’re not trying to repeat their own past films either.
Throughout its running time, it’s Kusama’s direction that keeps this juggernaut of an LA noir on course, and the decision to keep all of the seedy, scrungy nature of the plot out in broad daylight, in the unforgiving sunshine, informs the prickly personality of the piece.
Keeping on top of the non-linear structure, Kusama and editor Plummy Tucker move the film along towards a profoundly futile finale that still feels completely true to the story. Combined with the ceaselessly serious tone, the result is a film that often feels self-conscious in its subversions but boasts undeniable technical prowess all the same.
Destroyer is oppressive and impressive fare that also serves as a welcome reminder of how tolerable these actor-friendly character studies are when they’re not dragged out across 10 hours or more for a season of “cinematic” prestige television. Even though it feels too direct in its tagging of LA noir touchstones at times, it’s well worth seeing for the unsettling way in which it nails its most crucial beats.