By Peg Aloi
This hardscrabble crime thriller is also a powerfully subtle character study.
Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama. Screening at Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema
Directed by Karyn Kusama, previously known for the cult horror film Jennifer’s Body, and co-written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who previously collaborated with Kusama on The Invitation), this hardscrabble crime thriller is also a powerfully subtle character study. Destroyer‘s first scene shows Nicole Kidman, who plays Los Angeles police detective Erin Bell, arriving at a crime scene where a man lies in his own blood. Unsteady on her feet and unkempt, Bell looks exhausted. The other detectives present comment on her appearance: one says she looks awful; a female detective insists that Erin’s help is not needed on the case. Erin hints she knows what has happened and is met with sarcasm. She walks away slowly, her middle finger raised. Obviously, Erin is troublesome on the job, but she commands respect. She’s dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket that hang on her as if she’s been on a long hunger strike. Her cheeks are hollow, her face freckled but pale, empty of makeup, and her steel grey hair is cut in a choppy shag. At first, you suspect that Destroyer will be one of those films in which a famously beautiful actress is made up to be “ugly” — in the name of becoming a character. As if the addition of prosthetics, makeup, and costumes is the key to whipping up a superior performance.
When male performers do this (think Robert DeNiro putting on forty pounds for Raging Bull), it’s about their mastery of physicality, the actor as body. When women do it (think Charlize Theron in Monster) this kind of re-vamping is treated with derision. But in Destroyer there’s a difference: Kidman also plays a younger version of Erin, seventeen years earlier, and she’s as stunning as ever (albeit with black hair and, in at least one scene, her fake freckles are glaringly obvious). So this is not a case of seeing an actress physically transformed into someone who is less attractive than she is; rather, we see an actress portraying a person whose own life is changed so thoroughly that her once radiant beauty has become barely recognizable. This is not a triumph of makeup, but a triumph of acting. A reminder that Kidman, despite her legendary beauty, is a damned good actress.
Could a less well-known performer have done it? Probably. But to have someone celebrated for her ethereal looks play a character whose once alluring form becomes a grimy shell is a bold choice, making Destroyer a compelling story and a jolting ride.. The story is told partly through flashbacks, alternating scenes from seventeen years earlier to coincide with Erin’s current hellish journey. The showdown, in which she confronts a number of old cohorts, becomes a way for Erin to make sense of the past and sort out her chaotic present.
Early on, a flashback scene shows a young Erin drinking in a bar with Chris (I, Tonya’s Sebastian Stan), a fellow undercover officer. They’re throwing questions and answers back and forth rapidly, quizzing each other on the ‘history’ of their fake relationship. Chris insists tht Erin kiss him, so he’ll “be ready” when they have to do it undercover. The chemistry between them must be (of necessity) subdued, but it’s still crackling. It’s not long before that electricity complicates their working relationship, eventually leading to life-altering decisions.
Part of Erin’s shoddy state is due to heavy drinking. But a lot more than that has contributed to her slow decline, including her estrangement from her sixteen year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who lives with her father. Erin and her ex-husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy) are civil, but he’s got the haunted look of a man who is still smitten, wondering how things went wrong. He’s curious about her work, understanding her tendency to be easily consumed by it. The “new case” she mentions is not an assignment but a personal quest, and Erin won’t share the details with him. A cop’s spouse is used to that; but Erin is also being dishonest with fellow detectives and officers, driven by her need to make things right.
As Erin tracks down former associates, we see the wear and tear of the years on those who were in her orbit. Some are stuck in dark patterns of behavior, others are at the end of their journeys or desperate to escape their pasts. But revisiting the past doesn’t provide redemption, or even release, at least not in the ways it usually does for Hollywood. Still, as Erin’s jagged quest unfolds, her increasing exhaustion and disarray don’t seem to affect her ability to push forward with ruthless fervor. She’s aggressive, clever, violent, and pragmatic — and needlessly reckless. She’s also undeniably corrupt and that, more than anything else, makes this character fascinating. Destiny may lead Erin to her inevitable wind-up, but it’s her own willful desire, perhaps for self-punishment, that pushes her along the way. Destroyer is a gripping story about the acid of regret: it eats away at our hearts until we’re hollow — and have nothing left to lose.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.