Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer

Karyn Kusama’s crime/noir film Destroyer is a 4-star film only running at a 2.5. It is technically brilliant, incredibly acted, and has all the makings of a crime film classic. Unfortunately, the script never hones in on the emotional center of the story. We’re left not feeling much for the characters and the narrative twist towards the end doesn’t have the impact that it should.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as the extremely grizzled L.A. detective Erin Bell. She’s an alcoholic, has a teenage daugther that she can’t connect with, an ex that tries to keep things together, and a partner at work she never talks to. The movie starts at the murder scene of a gang member. When Kidman arrives she notices cash on the victim that has purple paint on it. She immediately knows that that is a message directed at her. A bank robber has come out of retirement, a bank robber Detective Bell and her old partner went undercover to catch 17 years prior. Things went bad in that undercover operation, bad enough that 17 years on Kidman’s Erin Bell looks like an extra from The Walking Dead. At this point Detective Bell pretty much goes rogue in order to hunt down the bank robber and gang leader called Silas in order to get the justice she never got all those years ago. She begins tracking down members of the gang, a lawyer that helped Silas launder his money, and get involved in some hairy shootouts and look as rough as you feel after a long night of shots and Karaoke.

I wanted to love Destroyer. It had the potential to be one of those sleeper films that ends up as a cult-y crime classic. I’m a huge fan of Karyn Kusama. Her film The Invitation is one of my favorite horror(if you can call it that) films in the last few years. It was one of those film surprises I started watching late on a Saturday night and was up until 1 am in awe and a little stunned. Kusama is the master of her frame. She captures shots beautifully and has a flow to her films that feels very 70s-esque. Besides The Invitation, Kusama has directed the films Girlfight, Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body, and a segment in the horror anthology film XX. She has also directed episodes of Halt and Catch Fire, The Man In The High Castle, and Billions.

With all of that behind her Kusama worked as much magic as she could on Destroyer, but you can only do so much when the script(written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the team behind The Invitation) isn’t quite there. The film looks amazing, and there is plenty of tension-building with the camera work and flow of the scenes, but there’s not enough character-building in the story that allows us to invest emotionally with anyone on screen. Kidman’s teenage daughter should be one we feel great empathy towards, but most of the time spent with her is with a much older boyfriend and showing nothing but disrespect and disdain for her guilt-ridden mom. Of course there lots of reasons for that attitude and resentment the daughter carries, but we are never really privy to those reasons. We get a glimpse of it during the last act, but it’s not enough to turn any opinions at that point.

Another problem is the makeup they have on Kidman’s Detective Bell. I get that she’s been drinking hard and self-hating due to massive guilt since the undercover sting went south all of those years ago. A person isn’t going to age well in those circumstances. But what they’ve done to Kidman here is just about too much. It’s such an extreme transformation that it’s distracting. Charlize Theron went thru a transformation in Monster, but that looked and felt natural. She could act thru that physical transformation. Here, there were moments when it seemed difficult for Nicole Kidman to emote thru the heavy makeup. Don’t get me wrong, Kidman was great in this, but I think a little could’ve gone a long way in making her look haggard and somewhat beaten by life.

The supporting cast was amazing here. With a crew that included Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Toby Huss, Bradley Whitford, and Scoot McNairy, along with Kidman, there was enough acting chops here to make even the most lacking of scripts feel not so lacking. Everyone does an incredible job here, especially Tatiana Maslany(from Orphan Black) as one of the gang members and Scoot McNairy as Kidman’s ex. Had there been a little more meat on the story who knows where Destroyer could’ve gone.

One of the aspects of Destroyer that worked perfectly was the score by Theodore Shapiro. Shapiro builds tension and dread through his deft compositions, using both traditional orchestration and electronic elements. His use of dissonance and stabs of distorted guitar up the pulse and agitation in the film. He also brings things down to a melancholy lilt with strings, giving the already tragic story line an even heavier heartbreak. At times his work here is reminiscent of Johann Johannsson’s score work on Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. Shapiro has a long history of film score work, but I first came to know him thru Kusama’s The Invitation. That score got me excited to see where he’d go with Destroyer, and in that aspect of the film I was not disappointed.

Sometimes a vague indifference works in a film. There doesn’t need to be backstory and history for the characters. Their faces and actions in the present tell all the backstory we need. The Invitation was like that. With Destroyer, though, I feel a few more rounds at the script and some fleshing out would’ve turned Destroyer from a 2.5 film into a 4 star classic. I’d still recommend Destroyer on the performances, direction, and score alone.

 

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