Director: Karyn Kusama
Screenplay: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Jade Pettyjohn, Scoot McNairy
Runtime: 123 Minutes
Occasionally the most refreshing cinematic experience that one can have is from seeing an exceptional crew and creative time take a well-worn genre or storyline, and coming at it with an approach that produces an end product that feels utterly unique and fresh in spite of its otherwise frowned up position as a genre film.
Destroyer is a crime drama that takes the foundations of a narrative usually prescribed to hardboiled male revenge and empowerment fantasies and places it in the hands of Nicole Kidman, playing an undercover LAPD officer who must take out members of a gang, years after her case was catastrophically blown.
But the casting of one of Hollywood’s most opulent actresses in a role that requires her to fully transform her physical appearance into a far more withered and tired look isn’t the main reason for why the film excels – although it is one of the biggest. Director Karyn Kusama takes its premise and transforms it into something new and engaging by allowing the presence of Kidman to further inform its themes concerning middle-age, parenthood, and the destructive corrosiveness of holding onto emotions such as grief, guilt and obsession.
Through extensive flashbacks, we see Nicole Kidman’s Erin Bell 16 years prior going undercover with partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers under the wing of Toby Kebbell as Silas. The slow parsing out of the pieces of this backstory adding to the greater puzzle that is why the Bell of the present has degenerated so completely into the figure that she now lumbers around as.
Kidman is an accomplished actress with good reason, with a greater deal of range to her performances than she is probably given credit for, but what you’ve heard is true; Kidman is extraordinary here. Not just delivering on the physical performance and movements in the present day that contrasts strongly with her more wide-eyed and optimistic younger self in the flashbacks, but the emotional detail and lows that she is asked to go too are undeniably compelling – as is the manner in which she can so quickly transform from an intimidating spectre to a person with hollow eyes to a savage and violent creature.
A limbering husk of a human being so immediately distasteful that it begs you to wonder how she ended up this way, and the answer of which makes her somehow more unlikable and tragic the more her actions are understood. The fact she she is a women plays into the film with unsettling sequences of violence and abuse, in one scene seeing how pulling her badge out at a rowdy bar does nothing to deter those there.
Even the relationships she has with others feels brittle and broken by years of degradation, from her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) dating an older man as an act of defiance to the fascinating state of the relationship between Bell and Silas' girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) who she left behind but clearly shared something deeper with.
Something else that director Kusama and collaborative writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi understand is that vengeance can only lead down one path, and the redemption that one may seek to find from following through on unspeakable acts in order to get there might not be worth it, with many moments that might otherwise be a cathartic act of liberation – such as the brutal gun and fight scenes or even the conclusion of her journey – are grounded with the sad and blunt reality that the entire film is carved into.
Kusama’s direction here might be the strongest effort of her entire career, with assured confidence in her cast and the material that allows a film that operates so small to feel so lived in and believable. Her decision with the writers to stager the narrative structure in a non-linear style allows for surprise as much as it does to deliver on the right beats and reveals when they feel right, and allowing the visuals and editing to convey details over exposition.
If there are shortcomings, then they might be down to how the audience will end up reacting to the twists of the film later on which make sense but could feel overly predictable to more attuned viewers, especially in regard to Kebbell's compulsive leader. But the component elements are so strong that they are made to work, especially from a supporting cast of reliable character actors including Bradley Whitford and Scoot McNairy.
Destroyer is one of the strongest exercises within its genre to emerge in years, with a centred and powerful performance from Kidman that feels like one for the ages. A melancholy wallow disrupted by fury and violence that satisfyingly leaves a lingering sensory impact.