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Amid the hoopla of Tuesday’s Oscar nominations (which saw numerous nods for this week’s other big release, Vice), it was depressing to be faced with yet another all-male list in the best director category. The Oscars have always been skewed towards men (to date, Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman to have won), although it’s been argued in the past that the awards merely reflected the gender bias of the film industry itself. Yet this year, potential contenders included such diverse film-makers as Chloé Zhao for The Rider, Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Lynne Ramsay for You Were Never Really Here, Josie Rourke for Mary Queen of Scots, and Debra Granik for Leave No Trace – the last of which, my favourite film of 2018, received no Academy recognition whatsoever.
To that impressive list I’d add Karyn Kusama for Destroyer, another female-led feature which has flown entirely under the Oscars’ radar. Boasting a powerhouse performance by Nicole Kidman in her best role since To Die For, this angst-ridden thriller is described by Kusama as a “woman-against-herself” story in which a tortured cop is forced to confront the guilty ghosts of the past while becoming accountable for the actions of the present. There’s a clear thematic debt to such character-driven 1970s classics as Serpico or The French Connection, but Destroyer also feels profoundly contemporary in its flipping of traditional gender roles. As the spectacularly addled Erin Bell, Kidman gives Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant a run for his money in the decrepit antihero stakes, her awful admission that “I’m not good” echoing Keitel’s infamous howl: “I did so many bad things…”
Destroyer opens like a sand-blasted remake of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, as a bedraggled Erin wakes up in her car. Her face is ravaged, as if it has been drowned in an ocean of pain, then left to dry in the scorching sun of self-loathing. Her eyes are vacant and translucent, her lips are parched, her countenance almost catatonic. When Erin rolls up at a crime scene, her colleagues treat her with disdain, advising her to “take care of your own personal shit”, even when she slurringly tells them that she knows who killed the man now lying in a pool of blood.
From here, the narrative (by regular writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) flips back and forth between past and present, with ink-stained dollars found on the dead body apparently tying this case back to an FBI sting in which Erin worked undercover, many years ago. Now she sees the chance to settle a score with her criminal nemesis Silas, played with a snake-like sneer by the ever-versatile Toby Kebbell. But Erin also needs to address problems closer to home, with teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) showing signs of repeating the mistakes that apparently derailed her mother.
Since making a splash in 2000 with her Sundance hit Girlfight, Kusama has earned plaudits among genre fans for directing the satirical 2009 high-school nightmare Jennifer’s Body (from a script by Oscar winner Diablo Cody) and the 2015 psychological chiller The Invitation, alongside a segment of the female-directed frightfest anthology XX. Throughout, she’s proved a dab hand at blending pulp convention with character insight, so it’s no surprise that Destroyer gets under the skin of its key players; a low-key confessional scene between Erin and Shelby is spellbindingly played, with Theodore Shapiro’s eerie score adding to our emotional investment. But Kusama also proves herself equally adept at action, scoring a bull’s-eye with a breathless shoot-out that reminded me of the acclaimed set-piece showdown from Michael Mann’s Heat.
Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood’s widescreen images lend an epic edge to Erin’s internalised traumas, shifting between the washed-out hues of the present and the more vibrant saturations of the past. While the smart use of LA locations grounds the drama in a tangible world, Kirkwood also injects an air of dreamy unreality into sequences which reflect the shattered state of Erin’s psyche – broken, yet strangely beautiful.
At the centre of it all is Kidman, bringing an impressive physicality to her performance that says more about Erin than words ever could. We learn so much from simply watching her walk, her gait combining an air of stroppiness with an overriding sense of being weighed down or crushed, like a packhorse hobbled by years of abuse. It’s a terrific turn that (like the rest of the movie) reminds us that awards often offer little indication of what’s really worth watching in cinemas.
Source: The Guardian
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