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Non-Review Review: Destroyer

At its core, Destroyer is a pulpy, heightened B-movie.

The basic plot involves a former undercover officer who finds herself tidying up loose ends from a botched job twelve years earlier, Erin Bell trying desperately to stay ahead of everything as the walls close in around her. It’s a standard template for a story like this, and audiences will be familiar with the basic structure of the story. Erin’s life is a disaster zone, and there is a sense that she still carries the scars from the trauma she enduring working with a local criminal gang.

She is become death…

As with most other genre exercises like this, Destroyer lives or dies in the execution. The template is so recognisable because it works efficiently. Apply a talented performer, a good director and a solid script to the template, and the movie will work. In that respect, Destroyer benefits from a compelling central performance by Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, and from director Karyn Kusama’s understanding of the rhythms and tempos of genre exercises like this.

Destroyer stumbles a little bit in its third act, largely due to a completely unnecessary piece of narrative trickery. However, the film is propulsive and compelling enough to make it across the finish line.

Copping to it.

On the surface, a lot of the beats and elements of Destroyer are familiar. Undercover cops are something of a cinematic cliché, thematic ground that has been well-mined. Destroyer plays on a lot of the familiar ideas of the genre: the question of what it feels like to play both sides of the law like that, the blurred moral boundaries that result, the question of whether these sorts of experiences can ever be properly compartmentalised. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. These familiar elements are a feature of the genre, not a bug. It all lies in the execution.

The most striking thing about Destroyer is how exhausting everything feels. Absolutely everything looks like it takes effort for the characters. More than that, everything looks like it hurts. Even moving through the world of Destroyer seems to take active effort, as if pushing through muddy water or wading through swamp land. The title Destroyer seems to be a slight misnomer; anything of value was destroyed long ago, leaving the characters to navigate the scattered debris.

Erin her dirty laundry.

This sense of weariness and fatigue is reflected throughout the production. The violence in Destroyer is rarely swift, whether because the characters are simply too exhausted to muster enough energy to fell an opponent swiftly or because they are so used to being beaten that they always find the energy to pull themselves back up. Destroyer takes great pains to illustrate the great pain that it inflicts upon its characters.

When Erin brings down the butt of her firearm on the face of a suspect, the make-up renders the wounds in graphic detail. Even if the characters refuse to stay down under the barrage of such an attack, those blows look like they hurt. Skin tears and rips and warps and bends. Blood rarely spurts, but it often leaks and oozes. There are several points in Destroyer where exhausted and beaten characters wrestle one another to the ground, only to climb back to their feet and have to do it all over again.

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Other movies tend to shrug off this sort of damage, allowing characters to either collapse quickly under such assault or permitting them to walk away from such violence without any lingering scares. Destroyer makes a point to dwell upon these scars. Erin’s body itself is a map of past trauma. The present-day version of the character limps through the film, carrying with her injuries accrued during that botched undercover job more than a decade earlier. The world of Destroyer is tangible and physical in a way that few films like this allow.

A lot of this is down to the work of Nicole Kidman. Kidman plays the grizzled and world-weary Erin Bell as if every single step is a force of will, one exerted over a body that long ago gave up the ghost. It seems like Erin Bell might have died more than a decade ago, but was too stubborn to admit it. Part of this is obviously the superb make-up used to make Kidman appear battered and bruised, but it’s also reflected in her mannerisms and behaviors. It’s a striking performance, one that adds a lot to the film around it.

Mother of the year.

Late in the film, Erin talks about how she doesn’t want to be hungry or scrapping any longer. It is a thesis statement for the movie, an expression of the character’s deep-seated desires, and an acknowledgement of how exhausting the act of simply living can be in this sort of world. The moment works because Destroyer has so effectively sold the brutality of its world. Destroyer unfolds in a world where everybody hungers and scraps, and so Erin’s desire to escape that feels tangible. In fact, the entire plot of the film feels like a cold and mocking rebuke to Erin’s desire.

Of course, it would be too much to insist that such a performance makes the film. Kidman is very much the top draw here, and enjoys pushing herself well outside her comfort zone into the role of rugged antihero that has long been the domain of male actors of her age. However, to credit Kidman alone for the film’s success would do a disservice to director Karyn Kusama. Kusama understands how a story like this works, and skillfully creates a sense of mounting dread. Destroyer doesn’t have many setpieces, but its central action beat is pulse-pounding.

Given she’s operating in California, does that make her Pacific Bell?

Kusama also assembles a fantastic supporting cast, without ever taking the spotlight away from Kidman. Following on from his work in films like I, Tonya or The Bronze, Sebastian Stan demonstrates that he is one of the most effective secondary male leads working at the moment. Bradley Whitford has a small but memorable role as a smarmy lawyer. Tatiana Maslany is perhaps slightly underused as a member of the gang who developed a close bond to Erin. Toby Kebbell is suitably ominous as a sociopathic bank robber.

Destroyer does hit a minor hurdle in its final act, when the film decides to play with audience expectations. This developments makes a reasonable amount of sense on paper, in that it is an attempt to shift the emotional weight of the film rather than simply catch the audience off-guard. Nevertheless, this development is not properly signposted, and so feels slightly disingenuous in the context of the film that the audience has been watching. There is very little reason for Destroyer to conceal this information as long as it does.

Nevertheless, Destroyer builds up enough momentum that this late-stage development never undercuts or overwhelms the story as a whole. Destroyer it remains an effective and well-made sun-drenched Californian crime story, a worthy addition to a familiar genre.

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