A largely thrilling endeavor that’ll play well in television reruns, but may never find a stronger audience than that.
After an unjust number of years spent in director jail for the failure of Aeon Flux, the taut thriller The Invitation put Karyn Kusama back on the map. Her follow-up, Destroyer, penned by the same writing team, is an ambitious cop flick that echoes the classics of the genre while falling short of joining their hallowed ranks.
Destroyer follows Nicole Kidman as alcoholic LAPD detective Erin Bell, a character who embodies every clichéd police protagonist ever. Kidman looks purposely rougher than she ever has on screen, with an unfortunate wig and a raspy voice that screams “I am the main character of a gritty crime drama” with such straightforward emphasis it transcends pap and becomes somewhat daring. The film uses a non-linear structure to swap between two dueling timelines. In the past, Erin is a rookie on an undercover mission for the FBI with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), looking and sounding more like the Nicole Kidman we’re used to seeing. Here in the present, she’s a hard drinking badass solving a mystery related to the tragedy from that case.
From a plot perspective, Destroyer is overstuffed with story. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script feels like an entire season of “True Detective” shoved into a two-hour movie. So much time is traversed and so many themes are implied but not properly explored that its two hours feel like six or seven. It’s a strange kind of pacing that makes the viewer feel as exhausted and broken down as the film’s heroine, but to no true aim.
Picking apart the procedural, there’s some fascinating psychological work being done about the long term effects of trauma and intergenerational issues between parents and children. Erin’s self destructive obsession with work gets in the way of her succeeding as a mother, or functioning as an adult on any other level. There’s also some casual lip service paid to certain socioeconomic concerns that tend to be in the background of stories about cops and robbers when they should be front and center. Together, it means there’s enough on the storytellers’ minds to pepper the film with enough thematic seasoning to feel more substantive than it really is.
For its bloated runtime, this is a movie that feels like it’s full of holes. Not logic failings in the plotting, but cavernous space where it seems like something meaningful is going to occur or be expanded upon but never does. Toby Kebbell has a surprisingly small part as the film’s primary antagonist, a cult leader/heist crew maestro who, for whatever reason, looks a lot like Glenn Danzig. The film’s structure builds him up to be this powerful and malicious villain the audience is practically salivating to engage with more, but in the finished product he feels more like a rough sketch from an early script draft than a real character. This would matter less if his relationship with Erin and their complex history wasn’t so important to the viewer being able to give a shit about the story past a certain point.
It’s not for lack of trying on Kidman’s part, who despite her try-hard appearance, is doing some of the best work of her storied career. She’s compelling on screen even when the script isn’t supporting her effort and she really sells the years between the two time periods. Kusama, too, brings a lot to the table in the way she builds a queasy kind of tension, in how she sets an ethereal mood that splits the stylistic distance between that aforementioned HBO series and the films of Michael Mann. Her Los Angeles is a hollowed out metropolis beset by coyotes and regret, with a lived in feel that buys a realism the script taxes with its convoluted plotting and narrative trickery.
But despite these two women doing killer work, the film itself doesn’t ultimately match the ambition on display. It functions well as an entertaining genre exercise, but never congeals into something as special and affecting as its earliest scenes imply might be possible. Less than memorable and more than a little disappointing, it’s still a largely thrilling endeavor that’ll play well in television reruns, but may never find a stronger audience than that.