Destroyer (2019) (Review)

An unrecognisable Nicole Kidman is haunted by the ghosts of her bullet-riddled, purple-painted past in Destroyer, where the air crackles with secrets and burns like the LA sun. Karyn Kusama's crime-drama-noir is a peculiar cross between mainstream and arthouse cinema but seemingly exists to neither: perhaps indicative of why the film has struggled to find its audience. That's rather disappointing because it's a genuinely terrific piece of filmmaking -- and one that perfectly lands one of the most shocking twists in a good while.

LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) is sent down a dark rabbit hole when a dye-stained dollar bill is sent to her, re-opening a decades-old cold case that fuels a mission of revenge. Co-starring Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan and Toby Kebbell, Destroyer is more than just a great performance as the film claws under your skin and lodges itself there for the duration and beyond.

Karyn Kusama's tightly-wrought feature infuses pulpy drama sensibilities into a slow-burning character-study. Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Destroyer inverts the male-dominated 70s genre practice with its own contemporary spin on the tortured anti-hero(ine), pulling her through the wringer in the name of redemption. A gritty and gruelling neo-noir carefully unravels, ensuring you are consistently hooked, even as the pacing becomes wonkier in the transition from the second to third act, and implausibility begins to seep in.

Hay and Manfredi present a flawed, fascinatingly complex individual endlessly shaped by the ever-evolving revelations that are expertly placed across the various timelines contained within the well-structured 123-minute runtime.  By the time it delivers its final blow - a twist which will remain unspoiled here if only to say it's totally ingenious and knocked the stuffing out of me like no twist has in a long while - it totally obliterates. A satisfying, thrilling and shocking conclusion prevails, an unshakeable culmination that feels both logically and emotionally tight, and right.

Kusama's crafts a grim, grubby and gritty tone that so beneficially augments the atmosphere pertinent to the film's effectiveness. A heavy, muggy air gives Downtown Los Angeles a claustrophobic, suffocating edge: like a character in its own right (and captured fantastically on screen by cinematographer Julie Kirkwood), it helps up the ante to feverish levels. Enriched by Theodore Shapiro's excellent score - a menacing composition that amplifies every emotion ten-fold - the action is delivered palpably with handheld movement immersing you deeper and deeper into the dangerous world presented. There's real brutality flowing from the film's core and unafraid to pull its punches, Destroyer frequently lands them with the force needed for this piece to really work. Between the Cupcake Parlour brawl and the Bank Heist, it includes some mighty fine set pieces that Kusama's executes with tremendous confidence.

In what will surely, and deservedly, go down as a career highlight, Nicole Kidman is astounding in this transformative turn: it is unlike anything you have ever seen from her before. Placed in less capable hands, it could quickly become a gimmicky charade - but Kidman masterfully imbues her character with humanity (no matter how corrupted that humanity may be) and she becomes utterly fascinating to watch. Her stance, speech and gait tell a story of their own, further established by the dual timelines; Kidman, rightly so, plays Bell as two separate characters, clearly affected by the life-changing event shown in the film's final act. It's such astonishing work from Kidman, who really deserved to be a bigger presence this award season.

Ultimately, Destroyer is a name-above-the-title star vehicle but it isn't without strong work from the supporting cast too. Tatiana Maslany delivers an impressive performance as Hollywood continues to grapple with how best to utilise her talent after such accomplished, acclaimed and multi-faceted work in Orphan Black. Sebastian Stan is a compelling presence and a crucial piece in the film's mystery, while both Toby Kebbell and Bradley Whitford makes the most out of rather limited screentime. The latter is most perplexing as a great deal of the story revolves around his actions, despite such little time being spent with him.

In my humble opinion, twists work best when the whole film isn't totally reliant on such an ending (really, the film would still be pretty decent if a more conventional conclusion was selected) but is truly elevated when one is landed correctly. Destroyer pulls off such a shattering moment stunningly, a marvellous rug-beneath-the-feet moment that makes sense logically and emotionally, satisfying in the moment and thought-provoking upon further scrutiny. Destroyer is a feature that will no doubt be rewarded by a second, third and fourth viewing - if only to fully appreciate the mastery of Kidman and Kusama's work - and I cannot wait to dive back in soon. It is so disappointing that the film struggled to find an audience but it has all the makings of a cult favourite; somewhere down the line may it blaze a trail into more lives, because it really is a film that deserves to be appreciated and embraced more.


Summary: Nicole Kidman's transformative lead performance is worth the admission fee alone, but Destroyer's challenging and compelling character-study, intense direction and final twist go on to shatter expectations beyond the against-type star turn.