Karyn Kusama, a formidable master of atmosphere, is no stranger to warring tones. Jennifer’s Body married comedy, scares and a before its time message of a teen girls ability to weaponize her sexuality to reclaim her agency; The Invitation played with slash and dash horror and numbing, parental grief. Kusama is so well equipped to juggle ideas and themes that shouldn’t gel (even if it’s taken nearly a decade to recognize it) that perhaps it’s the straight forward, timeline altering procedural nature of her latest, Destroyer, that throws her so woefully off her game. Destroyer aims to shock and move, made abundantly clear by the stiff wigs and dragged through gravel make-up Nicole Kidman is forced to wear, but unfortunately it only manages to leave one flustered and frustrated over the hoops the film needed to jump through to get to the last, unsatisfying moments.
Following Erin Bell (Kidman) a woman who endured more than one should while undercover years ago on a case is no longer that righteous and exuberant detective she once was. Always intoxicated and working within suspicious means to do her job all the while being an absent mother to a teen daughter dating an older man, Erin is – to the films credit – wholly unlikable. Through flashbacks we learn what lead Erin to become who she is as a man connected to her past is rumored to be on the streets again, forcing her to confront past trauma and individuals who broke her, built her up and let her down.
When the film manages to live up to the leading performance along with strong turns from Sebastian Stan and Tatiana Maslany it’s due solely to the direction by Kusama, cinematography by Julie Kirkwood and score by Theodore Shapiro working in tandem to create something visceral. Shooting largely in the scored Los Angeles desert, the film captures the lives of the characters living in drug fueled hazes and survivors guilt with a wide eyed approached, despite the overbearing heat curling the edges of the screen. Often Kidman’s Erin is framed as a feral animal, a woman licking her wounds from a tragic event that shaped and derailed the entirety of her life and in a standout scene Kusama captures this energy as she races through the woods, illuminated by moonlight as she chases down an old comrade both who’ve seen better days as they wheeze and propel themselves forward, moved by little more than survivor instinct and a desperate want for revenge. The ending even, for all its forced need for sentimentality that misses its mark completely is undoubtedly gorgeously shot, offering one last image of a woman who was strong armed into enduring anything the world pummeled her way.
Kidman delivers a towering performance, perfectly hollowed out and vacant behind the eyes aside from when her snarls suggests her pent up fury. Strung taut, Kidman is largely relying on physicality to convey the many wrongs done to Erin as she is a character of very little words, more likely to use her fists to get her point across than anything resembling expected etiquette. Kidman is a large part of why the character works period because, as mentioned, Erin isn’t likable (nor should she have to be) and she doesn’t magically get redeemed by the end of the film to add a insincere layer of emotional poignancy. We’re given enough to feel for her, enough to grant contest on what made her who she is but she ends the film with as many rough edges as she began, perhaps more as the relationship with her daughter is tattered despite her best efforts. Kidman possess just enough empathy for the character, just enough warmth in the flashbacks that we root for her to come out the other side better even if the odds are increasingly stacked against her.
The faults lie within the script. Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi the story itself is the films weakest aspect, scattered and unfocused, never quite settling on what part of the story it wants to tell and why. It needed honing, a second, even third go over before it hit the final stages to create something cohesively whole. Their lead character has more motive that the film does, resulting in a story with plenty of pieces and no semblance of order.
Destroyer fails to live up to the sum of its parts. Half-baked and relying too strongly on Kidman’s ferocity and Kusama’s eye for eerie beauty, if the writing had dared to take half the leaps and risks as its creative partners than perhaps the film may have resulted in something worth actually talking about.