Dennis Hopper once said that noir is every director’s favorite genre. While my college professor would quibble over even labeling it a “genre,” it is easy to see his point. In a world of paranoia and despair, aesthetic reigns supreme. But sometimes that aesthetic can be mostly the province of the actor-king, or in the case of Destroyer, actor-queen. Indeed, Karyn Kusama’s sunbaked neo nightmare gets a lot out of Nicole Kidman’s stellar performance as a poor, haunted cop doing an even poorer job of becoming the hero. In short, she is the perfect lead for noir, breaking the generic binary prism women are usually placed in with these sorts of films while standing as her own captivating creation—even if that stance ends with her sliding under the table.
All grayed and bloodshot makeup, plus a yellowing lather on her teeth, Kidman’s Erin Bell is a fantastically unkempt and disheveled creation. It takes almost the whole running time of the two-hour movie to understand why she has decided to crawl into a bottle, but when the film begins, her complete resignation to such dominion is unquestioned and played with a raw sort of mingling of pride and shame by the actor. As the type of visual transformation that likely will get noticed by Academy Award voters, it is also probably too grim a personage to receive recognition beyond nomination. Even so, it imbues its film with a grizzled despair that can elevate the more boilerplate passages of the film.
The movie is as much a mystery about the dirt underneath Erin’s fingernails as the case she doggedly pursues, which is gleaned when she commandeers the investigation of other LAPD detectives regarding a dead body that’s washed up in the county while adorned with purple paint-stained dollar bills. It’s easy to ascertain that Erin is treated as the disgrace of the department, not least of which because she walks through life with an utter lack of authority.
Despite Erin’s outrage that 16-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) is dating a 20-something scumbag from down the road, neither party bats an eye at the mama’s empty threats to keep them apart. Perhaps that is because Erin’s life has been a downward descent long before Shelby came along. As the film unveils in numerous flashbacks that intersect the narrative, Erin went undercover with another FBI agent named Chris (Sebastian Stan) back in Erin’s federal law enforcement days. They aimed to break a bank robber circle led by the cryptically named Silas (Toby Kebbell). Whatever happened 17 years ago though was bad, and the fallout has been the shell of a woman we meet today; desperate to track the violet-drenched dollar bill to its origin, for she believes it will lead her back to her prey. Silas is back in town, and Erin owes him an unspoken debt.
Destroyer is a return to the big screen for Karyn Kusama, a talented director in the television world with recent work on Billions and Masters of Sex. She also might most notably be the woman who inverted the “virgin/whore” complex of trashy teen horror movies via Jennifer’s Body. And she more than one-ups that here, creating something more tonally whole and aesthetically tight as she deconstructs the noir hero with a heroine who is as hard-drinking as Sam Spade and self-destructive as Walter Neff, even if the pressures put on her have the ugly wrinkle of misogyny and veiled manipulation.
Visually the world she inhabits is the Southern Californian urban decay from many past neo noirs that’ve emerged in the last 40 years, albeit a varaiation that fails to create a subjective hell resembling Erin’s persistent demons. It rather resembles so many urban shows set on the ugly side of sunny. The Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi screenplay also stumbles under the self-inflicted desire to so frequently jump between past and present, while keeping the destination of both a near constant ambiguity. Matters are similarly unaided by Kebbell’s Silas being a virtual non-entity, even as he is also Erin’s white whale who’s kept constantly off-screen. Consequently, the film fails to build toward an epiphany; rather it incidentally crawls over one.
These issues, however, are off-set in part by Kidman’s total immersion into Erin’s clouded waters, as well as a few of the most intense, whiteknuckled sequences in a thriller this year. One is the noir staple of an out-of-her-depth gumshoe attempting to put the squeeze on a rich scumbag, here embodied by Bradley Whitford who’s enjoying a renaissance of playing rich scumbags as of late. Like all the John Hustons and David Strathairns before him, Whitford’s Spanish mansion-dwelling DiFranco is a smiling piece of work, but his arrogant disdain takes on an added layer of menace when squared against a woman who he views as vulnerable.
This scene is yet surpassed though by a bank robbery sequence that is the best of its kind since The Town, benefitting from the fact that Kidman is so persuasively off-the-rails it is unclear whether the hostages caught in the crossfire are better off with the cops or robbers.
Destroyer is an ultimately familiar slice of sleuthing nihilism that doesn’t do a whole lot new with its covnentions. But it does occasionally conjure spectacular incantations of it, and it features one of the more compelling heroes in all her failings with Erin. Kidman’s piercing blue eyes connect Erin’s past and present, but these windows to the soul are merely an unmarred corner of a long-condemned house—one that’s a marvel to wallow in for a few hours.