Destroyer (Karyn Kusama, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Anchored by a searing turn from lead actress Nicole Kidman, Destroyer powers through its weaker moments like an addict looking for the next fix. All that matters is Kidman’s ravaged visage and world-weary wheezes, plot mechanics and artful supporting performances be damned. Director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) keeps her lens squarely focused on her antihero of a protagonist in gritty close-ups that reveal her every bad decision, the entirety of a life that has led to a bitter end. If the script – by Kusama’s longtime collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi – cannot quite keep up with Kidman’s brutal misanthropy, at least the star offers enough of a reason to continue watching. See it for her, then, and ignore the rest.
Kidman plays Erin Bell, a police detective we meet in past and present, flashbacks from events that still haunt her today intermingling with a current investigation. Years ago, when she was young and green, she and partner Chris (Sebastian Stan, I, Tonya) went undercover as bank robbers in a notorious gang led by a murderous man named Silas (Toby Kebbell, the 2016 Ben-Hur). Things turned very sour, and though, since then, Erin has kept on working – even marrying (later divorcing) and birthing a daughter (who hates her) – the pieces of her life remain shattered, and she drinks herself into oblivion every night, sleeping in her car and looking ever the worse for wear. When, after almost two decades, Silas reappears, she seizes the opportunity to hunt him down and settle old scores, hoping to exorcise the demons that will not let her go. Time for a reckoning.
This is the kind of role we have long grown accustomed to seeing when played by a man, and while in the real word plenty of people – male and female – go about their business looking like wrecks, it is still unusual to see a film embrace a woman’s decay like this. Such a cinematic choice is not a net good, in and of itself, but compelling enough to spark an initial frisson of interest. Coupled with Kidman’s full-bore emotional investment in the role, and we have a complex character layered with nuance, which is always a positive in any drama. Would that the supporting story did her proper justice.
The structure and bifurcated chronology of the narrative, including a nice twist where time folds in on itself at the climax, is not without its fine points, but the central conflict ultimately feels like a letdown, not helped in any way by Kebbell’s casting as Silas. He is not without some kind of charisma, but is hardly the personification of evil that his buildup would lead us to imagine. Stranger still are the pedestrian facts of the old case, once revealed. Yes, bad things happened and people died, but it was all ultimately just a bank job that went south; given the mess that Erin has been since then, we expect more. It’s much ado about not much at all. But at least there is Kidman, acting her heart out, and almost making it all work, any way.