“I just wanted one good thing.”
Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a barely functional alcoholic, burned out on the job and running away from the trauma of her past. She’s divorced, and her kids act out as retribution for her incompetence as a parent. Her life is now a series of mistakes made by a person granted infinite power by a badge. Erin Bell is a character in the vein of True Detective. Unfortunately, she’s straight out of the critically derided second season. Right down to the flashbacks, questionable makeup, and excessive drinking. Looking at Erin, she is a hollowed-out husk of a person. The bags around her eyes resembling the gaunt of death. The once exuberant face that we see in flashbacks is hardly recognizable in the present day. She had a bright future as a member of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, but after being placed undercover in a thrill-seeking outfit that robbed banks, a traumatic incident warps her sense of duty and her ability to connect.
The gang in question resides in California, but that’s where the similarities between Destroyer and director Karyn Kusama’s last film end. The Invitation decisively broke down the mindset of those who allow themselves to be taken into cults, but the man that drives the central mystery of Destroyer lacks any kind of meaningful hook. Why would any person throw away their lives for Silas (Toby Kebbell), a third-rate version of Point Break’s Bodhi? With an amused expression on his face, Silas throws a loaded pistol at an acolyte and tells him to test his luck. Arturo (Zach Villa) puts the gun to his head, much to Erin’s chagrin, and gets the empty click that sends Silas into fits of laughter. He’s not insightful, he’s not charismatic, and he’s no mastermind, so why follow Silas at all?
Of more interest are Erin and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), who throw themselves into the investigation, perilously losing sight of the law, and burying further into each other. The entanglement that neither cop bargained for makes them real in Silas’s eyes and, inadvertently, helps keep them alive. What comes of that investigation is dangled by Kusama throughout the dual storylines, but the audience recognizes the horror on Erin’s face when a dead suspect and an errant dye-pack are uncovered: Silas is back. Left with no leads, Erin must work her way through the few members left of the gang and put her demons to bed or allow them to consume her completely.
Destroyer leans into a lot of the staples of the grimy detective stories, but without some rebuke or clever eschewing of those tropes, the film doesn’t so much pay homage to the genre and, instead, provokes unintentional laughter. The creative team behind the film may have had better luck casting a different actress as younger Erin, and leave Nicole Kidman to work only as the older Erin. Movie make-up has progressed to being completely indistinguishable, but not the layers added on to Kidman’s supporting cast. For them, suspension of disbelief never occurs. In the case of Tatiana Maslany, specifically, her character isn’t even developed enough to warrant aging. One of the multiple problems with the script that surfaces. At over two hours length, Destroyer needed to be cut closer to the bone. The narrative fat added by the inclusion of Erin’s daughter, presumably, to give Erin’s character more depth and richer interior life, mires the mystery at the heart of the film.
Worse yet, most of those scenes come off as laughable in action. It’s obvious that Erin is desperate to save some semblance of innocence in her flawed life, but Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) will never be the beneficiary of any risks that Erin takes. For all of the terrible decisions Shelby has seen her mother make, she aims to recreate them with a wannabe gangster (Beau Knapp). If this material was added to make Erin accessible, it failed spectacularly.
The biggest breath of life comes when Erin has an encounter with the sleazy DiFranco (Bradley Whitford, who may be the only person who knows what film he’s in). However, the scene poses a problem for the authenticity of everything that follows afterward. Whitford keenly acknowledges the presence of movie rules that would result in the death of real-life police, yet the scene promptly continues on as unbelievable as it is. It’s a very meta moment that was left toothless by the script. Rigid adherence to cliches makes watching Destroyer even more self-conscious. Swapping Nicole Kidman’s Erin in place of crustier, macho actors like Gerard Butler in Den of Thieves is a subversive move, one that Destroyer doesn’t replicate in any other regard.
Karyn Kusama’s sense of direction holds up under scrutiny for the most part. Yet the assured style she displays for the heists and action scenes can’t make up for the void the film leaves emotionally. And a fatally misjudged ending that strives for transcendence results largely in confusion. The draw of Destroyer is Nicole Kidman’s volcanic performance, one that can’t be tempered even by a hapless script. What value her traumatic odyssey holds varies depending on the eye of the beholder, but she is mesmerizing in her transformation.