Film Review: DESTROYER (directed by Karyn Kusama)

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by Joan Alperin on November 26, 2018

in Film


From the opening scene of Destroyer there is a keen sense that something very different and extremely artistic is upon us. Karyn Kusama’s modern noir, aided by the sharp eye of her cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, paints amazing pictures by using a multitude of long shots capturing a sun-drenched, gritty Los Angeles in unforgettable ways.

Kusama burst onto the filmmaking world in 2000 with her debut feature Girl Fight. Five years later she helmed Æon Flux, but the movie ended up an absolute mess: After Paramount Pictures changed leadership, they hated Kusama’s vision and took the film away from her, turning it into a confusing flop. The stylish and extremely disturbing The Invitation (2015) reminded us of Kusama’s talent. After dabbling in television, she is back with her fifth feature and it’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking.

The unrecognizable Nicole Kidman gives a fearless transformative performance as Erin Bell, a burned-out, damaged, guilt-ridden detective who suffered a breakdown after an undercover operation went wrong, which caused someone she loved to die. From her red swollen eyes moving as if she’s a caged animal always on alert, watching and waiting, to her lumbering body movement where every stumbling, dragging step is an effort, this is definitely the best performance of her career. She never lets us forget how deeply wounded Erin is both inside and out.

When the film opens, Erin Bell is waking up in her car. Her weathered beaten face and bloodshot eyes tells us that she’s been drinking and hasn’t slept in a very long time. She stumbles out of her car walking past a few skateboarders and slowly makes her way toward the L.A. river where she sees a dead body lying face down in the river. It’s obvious he’s been shot.

The other cops on the scene tell her to go home. They’ll handle it. But instead of going home, Erin goes to the police station where she finds an envelope addressed to her. Inside the envelope is a red stained one hundred dollar bill. This can only mean one thing. The man she hates more then anyone on this earth, and the man she wants to destroy, is back. Silas (the excellent Toby Kebbel), a violent criminal from Erin’s past,  is daring her to find him.

The film flashes back and forth in time. Erin, 17 years earlier when she’s a young, beautiful, fresh deputy with the Sheriff’s department, has been recruited to go undercover with FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan). Their assignment: Pretend to be a couple and infiltrate a gang of bank robbers led by the vicious manipulative sociopath Silas.

Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the crime mystery thriller slowly unravels the events that turned Erin into a traumatized mess. Still, it is in the present scenes that with Erin’s 16 year old estranged daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) that we see Erin’s vulnerability underneath the dysfunction.

Bradley Whitford gives a funny and ruthless performance as DiFranco, Silas’s  sleazy lawyer, and Tatiana Maslany plays Silas’s junkie girlfriend.

A very surprising twist which you won’t see coming ties everything together. But it is Kidman’s haunting performance which will stay with you.

Annapurna Pictures
United States | 123 minutes
in limited release December 25, 2018

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