In Karyn Kusama’s LA-based noir Destroyer, Nicole Kidman stars – and startles – as desiccated detective Erin Bell, revived by the possibility of vengeance against a past foe encountered while undercover seventeen years previously. Despite committed performances and an appealingly pulpy voyage through LA’s underbelly, the plot clings to the familiar beats of the crime thriller, making this a missed opportunity.
Haunted, dishevelled, seeking solace in the bottom of a glass – while the embodiment of the world-weary struggles of the heroically embittered detective by a new host of women leads is a welcome changing of the guard for the crime thriller, the risk lies in transporting a cage of clichés more enervating than energising. In Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, a time-ravaged cop lurched into action by the discovery of a body accompanied by a banknote doused in purple ink.
Taking this as a gauntlet laid down from the past, Bell is propelled into pursuit of an enemy made seventeen years before while an undercover cop infiltrating an LA gang. Her quest for retribution for a grievous wrong, revealed through the film’s dual narrative structure, re-submerges Bell in the city’s seamy underworld as she seeks gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell).
A much-discussed physical transformation in a career predicated on metamorphosis, the hyperbolic devastation writ large on Kidman’s visage as the present-day Bell visualises trauma as surface, worn as costume. At times, this is a distracting shield that inhibits the film from mining the affective layers necessary to transcend its otherwise conventional plot machinations. If the characterisation of Bell evokes extreme estrangement from her former self and the calcifying consequences of grief, Destroyer is perhaps too effective in also placing her at an alienating remove from the audience.
Here, it is the transformation within the film – the contrast between Kidman’s incarnation of a younger Bell and the present – that adds crucial texture to the character’s otherwise austere emotional repertoire. It is also entirely in keeping with a film that nods to the noir predilection for masquerade, multiple identities and uncanny doubles, even if it does not fully capitalise on this theme.
There are strong performances alongside that of Kidman. Despite limited screen time, Sebastian Stan is a sympathetic and memorable presence as Bell’s ill-fated undercover partner, Chris. As former crime associate, Petra, Tatiana Maslany adds a welcome, defiant energy, as well as being the recipient of a striking act of physical brutality that underscores Kusama’s skill at conveying the visceral shock of violence without the provocations of visible gore. Unfortunately, Silas is too loosely drawn to effectively act as the nemesis the film requires, contributing to an underwhelming moment of reckoning at the film’s denouement.
Yet, this is arguably apt for a film that ultimately underscores, through a dextrous piece of time-trickery at its tail-end, that one’s true nemesis – or destroyer – may in fact be the irreparably devastating actions of that eternal stranger, one’s past self. It is here that Destroyer most hints at possibilities beyond crime thriller convention in suggesting Bell, through her multiple incarnations, as both detective and femme fatale. Yet, while nimbly handled, the closed loop of the film’s structure speaks to the brittle circularity of trauma, but prohibits it from plunging fully into its depths. Leaving us trapped on the wrong side of Bell’s clouded blue eyes, the film’s potential remains frustratingly out of reach.