Karyn Kusama has had one of the most interesting and diverse careers of any director, going from teen boxing drama to sci-fi action to horror-comedy to psychological thriller. The most consistent theme is putting strong female characters in genre pieces. The genre she is tackling this time is a very male-dominated one, the police procedural/noir genre with the intention being to make one with a female protagonist. Her ambition results in Destroyer being a thriller that displays some uniqueness, even if the execution is not fantastic.
In California, Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is following a trail of evidence that will lead to gang leader Silas (Toby Kebbell), with whom she has a connection due to a past event. She is also dealing with her rebellious daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) and ex-husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy). In flashbacks, we see her infiltration of Silas’s gang, romance with partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) and the failed mission that ruined her life.
Kidman’s performance is worthy of praise, especially because of how different her character is from any other role I’ve seen her play. Erin is far more flawed than your average female protagonist, being in self-destruct mode, having previously been a horribly neglectful mother and spending most of her time without a partner or backup. Kidman’s tired voice and body language conveys a person that seems to be on the brink of death yet is attempting to tie up loose ends. It is remarkable that Kidman can still surprise us with a subtle, yet effective performance after already having given so many great ones.
The film is carried by her, which is a benefit because the supporting cast is mixed. Sebastian Stan is quite bland and leaves very little impact. Toby Kebbell as the main villain seems like he is going to be intimidating but is not given enough screen-time to register. Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Masley shine in their bit parts, whilst Jade Pettyjohn starts out quite annoying (admittedly intentionally so), but soon does an excellent job in a diner scene that is easily the most emotionally resonant sequence in the whole film.
The aspect that does drag Destroyer down is the story, as it just limps and drifts along without much to keep you invested. There are plenty of individually good scenes, but the story that links these scenes together is quite bland, simplistic and underdeveloped. The flashbacks are the only interesting part of the film, especially when you see how the past ties into the present and vice versa. The conclusion is cold and depressing, also containing a weak anti-climax and the addition of a twist that is clever if gimmicky. The dour, hopeless tone was also sometimes a dead weight that prevented me from getting invested in the story itself.
Kusuma’s direction mainly goes for mood and ambience, but it comes to life whenever a shootout or chase scene occurs. The cinematography is effective, especially when it emulates the emotions of the characters, getting across their pain and grimness. The strongest aspect of the production is the chilling and intense soundtrack by composer Theodore Shapiro, which is ironic considering his background in composing comedies.
Destroyer has many good qualities, but between this and Jennifer’s Body, Kasuma’s films have not been my cup of tea so far. It is worth a watch for several reasons that are listed above, but certain aspects prevented me from loving it more.