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Director Karyn Kusama kickstarted her career in 2000 with the fierce Girlfight; she gives us a sense-memory of that picture with this bruisingly excellent LA crime thriller, written for the screen by Phil Kay with Matt Manfredi.
The LA they imagine has a bleak, scorched, arid look in which the sunlight is always harsh, like that seen by a daytime drinker emerging from a bar, or by the same drinker waking up in his car the next morning. Production designer Kay Lee and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood create the colours and textures of this hostile world, but its overall mood is down to its star, Nicole Kidman, cast against type as Erin Bell. Erin is an LAPD detective who was brutalised and has become prematurely haggard after her experiences 16 years before, as an undercover cop covertly embedded in a violent and ruthless robbery crew. Its leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), is still at large after the crew’s final spectacular failed job – a bloody nightmare that led to Erin’s present state, and is revealed in progressive flashbacks.
Erin is a shambling wreck, whose appearance shocks and embarrasses her colleagues, and still deeply upsets her estranged partner Ethan (Scoot McNairy), with whom her troubled teen daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) now lives. But, like a zombie after a taste of fresh flesh, Erin is reanimated when she barges in on some other cop’s case involving a corpse bearing a certain gang tattoo on the neck: the same one Erin once had to get to convince the bad guys she was one of them. Silas is evidently back, and Erin is convinced that she can bring him in, or bring him down, and in so doing lay to rest her own toxic guilty memories.
Opinions may conceivably divide over Kidman’s appearance and style in this film. For some, given her signature elegance in other movies, this may look like Trianon casting: a star slumming it and uglying-up in search of awards prestige. I have to say I find Kidman’s performance superb: smart, committed, utterly absorbing. There is a horribly compelling contrast between Erin’s present state and her fresh-faced appearance in flashback. Kidman brings something particularly disquieting to the role, turning into a bleached, gaunt mask with eye sockets raw and red, possibly from long-dried tears. Kusama creates a tremendous coup when Erin doggedly tracks down and effectively imprisons Silas’s abused girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) and we see how Petra’s face has become ravaged and coarsened in exactly the same way.
So how exactly did Erin come to look like that? She’s a drinker, and could well have been using drugs, but it’s more a species of delayed shock, a physiological reaction to the terrible things that she saw, and caused, while undercover with her fellow officer, Chris (Sebastian Stan).
Erin is on a mission, ranging all over the city in an agonised archaeology of pain, digging up various surviving crew members. There are moments of banality, horror and bizarre black comedy. One of the people she confronts is the gang’s high-class fence DiFranco, in his chi-chi architectural home, played by Bradley Whitford in creepily louche athleisure wear. He reminded me a little of Bernie, the character Albert Brooks played in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – which may be an influence here. DiFranco sneeringly tells her: “You know what successful people do, Detective Bell? They get over things.” That is true, up to a point, and I like to think the line is also a reference to Nietzsche’s maxim: “The strong man forgets what he cannot master.” But not getting over stuff is the narrative drive for the whole film.
Destroyer reverses the gender polarity and ethos of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant: with Ferrara, the cop is the abuser and with Kusama the cop is the abused, but both are cops who have descended into hell and whose compulsive, addictive behaviour may be an effort to escape it – or to enter further into hell in an attempt to cauterise the pain.
Erin certainly feels that she is in an inferno, and everything she does may not really be a search for the exit, but a kind of coming-to-terms, particularly when it comes to finding some connection with her daughter. Kidman has a very interesting scene when the angry Shelby asks if Erin can remember once taking her on a chaotic camping trip. It is a memory that Kusama converts into a kind of degraded epiphany for Erin. Not redemption, but closure of a sort.
Source: The Guardian
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