Film review | Destroyer: Redemption ain’t easy

Shot with a polish that’s overqualified for its B-movie provenance, and boasting a magnetic central performance from Nicole Kidman, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is a dark and beguiling ride

Weathered Nicole Kidman is superb in Karyn Kusama’s bleak but effective neo-noir thriller
Weathered Nicole Kidman is superb in Karyn Kusama’s bleak but effective neo-noir thriller

There’s a beguiling bleakness that suffuses the noir genre, and it’s something that’s been carried over with an increasingly pained and pungent focus in its latter-day counterparts.

The American detective tradition, powered by Raymond Chandler’s writing and embodied with fatalistic gusto by the likes of Humphrey Bogart in its more classic iteration, has certainly not died off. But history has further sharpened the sheen of its nihilistic core, doing away with some of its more romantic trappings to deliver tales of quasi-redemption that fail to offer much by way of actual consolation.

The Brits did their work here too – the Michael Caine-starring, Mike Hodges-directed Get Carter stands as their monumental symbol – and now that we arrive at Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, bolstered by an impossible-to-look-away-from central performance by Nicole Kidman, we get something outwardly unpleasant but inwardly – and undeniably – distilled; the dark purity of its convictions making for a potent brew, bitter to gulp down as it may be.

Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and told in a toggle between the past and present, Destroyer finds Kidman’s defeated LAPD police investigator Erin Bell quite literally at the end of her tether. Estranged from her husband and daughter and still reeling from an undercover operation that happened years ago and ended in tragedy, she is suddenly forced to face up with that episode yet again.

Silas (Toby Kebbell), whose gang she had infiltrated along with her colleague and then-lover Chris (Sebastian Stan) has sent her a message. Erin is keen to respond. But doing so might require her to shore up her pent-up, vengeful anger into becoming a one-woman army.

Gorgeously shot and boasting an impressively jarring make-up job for Kidman, Destroyer is something of a culmination for the genre-hopping Kusama, a director with a varied repertoire. This does not mean that she’s a flitting artist with no identity, however. From the wildly underrated Diablo Cody-scripted, Megan Fox-starring high school horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body (2009) to The Invitation (2015) – a slow-burning ensemble psychological thriller – Kusama has proven her ability at finding the (often pained) human core that underpins the generic parameters of the surrounding plot.

Aided by a powerhouse display of both raw ferocity and vulnerability from Kidman, Kusama elevates what could have been wholly generic material into a hard-won meditation on the idea of redemption. Erin is a broken woman, but as the film proceeds and her history continues to unfold, we learn that she may not have been all that pristine a person to begin with. She is a qualified righteous avenger - good at her job but terrible at her relationships.

In fact, while the various shootouts are shot and choreographed with visceral precision – suspenseful, with a wincing accuracy when it comes to the violence on display – and a particular early moment of catharsis involving a sleazy accountant lands like a sweet, guilty reward amidst all the bleakness, it is Erin’s confrontations with her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) that really pack a true emotional punch. This is also true of Erin’s rekindling of her pseudo-friendship with Petra (Tatiana Maslany), the only other girl in Silas’ gang, with whom she re-establishes contact while following the trail of bitter breadcrumbs.

Enveloped in a tale that reeks of machismo at every turn, these flashpoints of significant connection between women open up avenues of raw authenticity.

The verdict

A hard-won and somewhat hard-going tale of redemption that is certainly not for the faint at heart, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer nonetheless remains an engrossing and satisfying neo-noir, offering flashpoints of both catharsis and genuine human connection amidst the bleak, nihilistic muck that characterises its milieu.