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There is a temptation to conflate grittiness with authenticity. If a filmmaker puts his actors and audience through an emotional ringer, heightening suspense with atmosphere and hard-boiled dialogue, then the implication is that the film in question is a more honest exploration of human nature.
Destroyer, the new dramatic thriller from director Karyn Kusama, upends that idea because it is simply too tough for its own good. Anchored by a committed Nicole Kidman performance, the film unfolds like a Key & Peele parody of a police procedural. By the time the film reveals all its secrets, its total divorce from human behavior will make it impossible to care what happened.
Detective Erin Bell (Kidman) looks like shit. After a drunken night, she stumbles out of her car and into a crime scene. There is a dead body, and Erin seems to know the victim. Her colleagues are past the point of concern or pity, and barely conceal their contempt instead. It’s no wonder: Caked under layers of grit, Erin probably smells worse than she looks.
Kidman sheds all of her usual glamour for the role. Under a distractingly bad wig and layers of prosthetics, she also speaks with a guttural drawl that sounds like her only diet is cigarettes and cheap gin. As Erin begins her investigation, her professional conduct matches her self-destructive nature. There is an already-infamous scene where Kidman gives a source a handjob in exchange for his cooperation. The absence of eroticism is intentional, while the feeling of embarrassment for the actors is not.
Kusama is no stranger to the thriller genre. Her last film, The Invitation, was a terrific slow-burn about a couple who slowly realize their dinner companions are in a cult. She again teams up with screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, except here they abandon escalating tension with a time-hopping conceit that confuses more than it illuminates.
We see Erin at a younger age, when she was an ambitious undercover FBI agent. Her partner (Sebastian Stan) is her only tether to an ordinary life, and since he is not around for the scenes in the present, it is safe to assume his absence partially led to her downfall. Destroyer reveals more about Erin in a haphazard way, so when we see all the layers and context, there is no coherent line between the person she was and the person she has become. The whole thing is in service of a grueling, borderline mean-spirited tone, and the cacophonous score by Theodore Shapiro only undermines the tone Kusama strives for.
If Destroyer has any direct inspiration, it is in Michael Mann thrillers like Heat and Collateral. Those films are also set in Los Angeles, and they use violence to explore the nature of hardened characters. But there is a lyricism to Mann’s work—he could strike elegiac notes that recalled Terrence Malick—while Kusama’s film has all the grace of dancing through sludge. Midway through Destroyer, Erin stumbles upon a bank robbery and decides to intervene with a semi-automatic rifle she happens to carry in her trunk. The subsequent shoot-out unfolds in a perfunctory way, with the lines of scrimmage barely defined. Since there was no lead-up to the scene, its consequences carry little significance beyond Erin’s distracting disregard for civilian life.
This is the rare thriller where you may find yourself questioning why it even exists in the first place. Its primary purpose is not entertainment—its tone is too oppressive, its narrative details too clumsy—and it fails as a character study since Erin’s choices are born out of convenience, not psychology. Maybe Destroyer is mood piece, or a tone poem, in a detective’s clothing. It creates a grim milieu, one where hope is a cynical punch line, minus the groundwork for such an approach to feel plausible. In other words, this film is a depressing slog, just not in an intentional way.
Destroyer opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.