Directed by Karyn Kusama
Destroyer is one of those films about a broken character whose present day storyline runs parallel to a recollection of a past storyline that broke said character. Both stories reach their climax at the same time so that, in a sense, the trauma of the past directly affects the present. Another example of this is Blue Jasmine and Memento.
The main character here is Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), and she might as well be a ghost. Her skin is dried and nearly translucent, and she staggers into a crime scene like Jackson Maine at the Grammys. The other detectives roll their eyes and suggest she get some sleep, but Bell sees the body and insists she knows who did it. The man’s three dots tattooed on the back of his neck and the ink-splattered bills will become familiar to us.
While Destroyer introduces us to a striking character, the rest of the film feels a little to ‘by the books’ although it is quite entertaining. It’s a bank robbery story, in both past and present, but the film tries to make us feel the burden of Bell’s own mistakes and misfortunes. The strange thing, I found, is that the eventual reveal of went wrong in the past is almost beat for beat what you might predict. It’s a familiar escalation of things gone wrong as you see in these movies all the time, which is more than okay because it keeps the story moving, but considering how much time is spent at the top showing us Bell’s dramatic degradation, we might keep waiting for something even more tragic to take place.
In other words the ups and downs of this story are no different than any similar kind of movie. There are bank robberies (one effective sequence in particular), undercover cops, a wild card who makes his friends play Russian roulette, oh yeah and that dead body which opens the film. We’ve spent time in this playground, we’ve seen previous LA-based noirs, and we know what to expect. For example, considering how miserable Bell’s present seems to be, any positive momentum in her past only further builds up the expected fall. ‘Oh she’s in love? That ain’t gonna last,’ kind of thing.
So when those things do go wrong, suddenly and dramatically, it’s expected. The dramatic question then isn’t necessarily what happens but how. What role does Bell herself play in this? You can imagine she’s been torn apart by guilt all these years later.
But the eventual reveal, while it explains the trauma of her past, doesn’t sufficiently explain her state of mind in the present. I struggled to feel the weight of what she lost which may have more to do with my desensitization as a movie goer. Perhaps her response to these events is what would be expected, because they are quite dramatic, but these events don’t transcend what we’ve seen many times before in this kind of a story.
But as a whole this is an entertaining film. The bank heist Bell stumbles upon unfolds in sensational, riveting fashion, like something out of Michael Mann’s Heat. It’s a wonderful moment, and the film has many other entertaining moments to go with it. As a genre film it’s all well and good.
But that opening image of Bell is so striking that it seems the film has much grander ambitions than your run of the mill film noir. It’s telling us this person is already a step away from death and has presumably been there since the events of the past which we see unfold onscreen. There is a stark contrast between younger, optimistic Bell and the present one, something like a Terminator with low battery life.
So I suppose the film aims to show what it is that can potentially strip the life right out of you. She keeps on living out of a sense of obligation perhaps, to her daughter or to the memory of another, but she’s not trying all that hard to stay afloat. It’s as if she always meant to die and simply forgot how.
Up Next: Steve Jobs (2015), Up in the Air (2009), The Farewell (2019)