If there’s a benefit from the progressive changes in Hollywood at the moment, then its the long-overdue prominence of female actresses taking lead roles. But the thankful inclusion has resulted in seeing more female anti-heroes, embracing a dark rage to their complex personality that typically goes against gender roles and expectations.
In Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, Nicole Kidman fearlessly takes on a radical and transformative role as Erin Bell, an LAPD police officer seeking revenge for an undercover crime heist that went wrong. As her character painstakingly staggers onto the murderous crime scene, resembling someone who had witnessed the eyes of death, it’s reliably understandable to see the appeal of this ambitious, film-noir tale.
Taking a page out of Charlize Theron’s book with Monster, you almost have to do a double take at Kidman’s unrecognisable features. This is a gritty, unflinching, haunting, alcoholic fuelled, ghost of a woman, sombrely troubled by her past, and wears it with every inch of her soul. Her character faults are boundless – kicked into gear by Theodore Shapiro’s score, Erin is violent, vulgar, calculating and selfish in the disordered ‘push and pull’ of her circumstances.
It’s not a flawless personification. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script (at times) lacks depth and range to solidify Erin’s perspective. Destroyer makes no mistake in highlighting her toughness, stopping at nothing and risking everything to wrong an injustice. There’s no immunity to the bleak dangers it presents, but it also strays into the realm where ‘toughness’ is expressed by the fact that she can viciously take a punch or a kick from violent individuals as a physical and mental obstacle to overcome.
But throughout, you give Kidman the benefit of the doubt, relishing each opportunity as she embraces full-on the ugliness of her character. She’s not meant to be admired. She’s repulsively irredeemable in her psyche, and at least in the grand scheme of things, it provides another occasion for a debatable context.
On paper, tying together Kidman’s performance with the overall essence of Destroyer should have worked. It’s not lacking in star power (particularly its supporting cast), its sizeable production or its visionary scope. But disappointingly, Destroyer is a frustrating mood piece where it struggles to decide what it wants to be.
It slips down the rabbit hole between a conventional, straightforward action heist thriller from Heat and a character piece from True Detective and doesn’t do both elements well. It wants to utilise all of Kidman’s dramatic power but there is only so much an actress can do when its final product is limited in its execution. But it’s the biggest frustration is the bland and unoriginal plot. Full of common scenarios, it restricts itself to routine conventions, meaning it’s a predictable plot line we’ve seen a thousand times and adds nothing new worth of substance.
A lot of its complex and intriguing themes are lost in transition due to its slow-burning yet problematic editing that lacks tension, tone and (most importantly) energy. It often (yet artfully) meanders from scene to flashback scene, but strangely says nothing about it, almost dismissive in its statements be it visually or narratively. Therefore characters are always underdeveloped, its dialogue contrived and long-winded and the plot considerably suffers, promising so much but truthfully never delivers.
It begs the question whether Destroyer could have benefited from a re-edit, stylistically adding some dynamism to its elemental re-shuffling. Its flashback scenes would have carried a trimmed dramatic weight instead of its ponderous predictability and scenes involving Erin’s daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) wouldn’t have felt like a distraction when it has significance to Erin’s overall determination. But alas, it wants to mellow in its moody indifference.
Consequently, its final twist doesn’t warrant, merit or earns its conclusion. It’s not a twist that comes out of nowhere – that would be unfair to say. But other directors have used that ‘full circle’ concept to a better effect and sadly for Karyn Kusama, it misses the mark.
Destroyer should have been satisfyingly better than what we got. It deserved more based on Kusama’s previous record of Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation. Kidman keeps the interest levels high enough, but it’s not sufficient to save it in a mix-bag affair.
DESTROYER is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details