Note: This film review was written after DESTROYER premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
James Cole Clay // Film Critic
The talk leading up to director Karyn Kusama’s crime saga DESTROYER has been revolving around Nicole Kidman’s transformative leading performance. Independent cinema aficionados, on the other hand, will perk up at the thought of filmmaker Kusama back in the director’s chair for her most ambitious project to date. Kusama’s career has seen the likes of Sundance darlings (2000’s GIRLFIGHT) to studio films that got out of control (2005’s ÆON FLUX). Either way, Kusama came back in a big way and gained critical praise for her moody thriller THE INVITATION back in 2016, and deservedly so.
DESTROYER finds Kusama operating on a higher plain as she portrays the Los Angeles cityscapes in overexposed daytime vistas that look how you feel after walking back into the world following a sunny matinee movie. The nights are portrayed with a smoky haze as Erin Bell (Kidman) walks through a seedy crime scene with zombie-yellow teeth, frizzed out black hair and a gaunt frame; it’s impossible to miss (and it’s a bit distracting). Even though the performance doesn’t work, audiences have never seen this side of Kidman’s creative persona.
We take a deep dive into Erin’s spiraling psychology when she receives a blotchy ink-dyed $100 bill that sets off an irreversible chain of events. From here, Kusama diverges the film’s narrative into an exploration of Erin’s past, present and the choices she made that led to her destructive path. She quickly deduces that this message came from Silas (Tobey Kebbell), an infamous bank robber Erin encountered earlier in her career, back in her deep cover days.
Frankly, DESTROYER gets lost in its own narrative confusion. Sure, the crime aspect is at the center of the storyline, but the heart comes from Erin’s fractured relationship with her 16-year-old daughter Shelby (a convincing Jade Pettyjohn). Shelby and Erin have been estranged for years as Erin has become addicted to, and broken by, her job as an LAPD detective. It’s a sorrowful sentiment that uncovers horrors for any parent. Kusama is suggesting that no matter how far astray a parent may become, that love for a child is undying.
DESTROYER splintered narrative ambitions is a far reach from its grasp. Through confusing timeline jumps (that depict Erin in her more optimistic days), she begins a relationship with her undercover partner Chris (an underutilized Sebastian Stan). As they infiltrate Silas’ band of criminals, the emotional weight is stockpiled and unloaded without warning. Kusama’s flippant use of pathos rings false. The duo start to lose sight of who they are professionally and personally, but there’s not much excitement to be had from their journeys.
Kusama’s film has appealing grittiness to its subject matter, yet somehow in execution this hard-boiled tale become a bit too stale with tropes that have been seen in this genre before. DESTROYER is going to be a tough sell for many audience members, yet the film has found some acclaim out of the festival circuit. This divisive work will have people singing the classic “love it, or hate it” song throughout the awards season. Kidman, for all her regal glory, can’t find a performance calibrated for this porous subject matter. Even though her commitment to this role is unlike anything you’ve seen from her, it becomes clear that transformation doesn’t always register as authentic.
DESTROYER screens at Fantastic Fest on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 8:10 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in Austin. It’s being released by Annapurna Pictures later this year.
Feature Photo: Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.