Trigger Warning: This review discusses events in the movie that include rape and violence against women.
Destroyer seems like a perfect film to end 2018 on. A dour and bare bones noir that cares less about the crime and more about the fractured psyche of its main character. It is infuriating at times, haunting at others. At all times it is riveting.
Karyn Kusama makes you feel the dry oppressive heat of a Los Angeles summer almost from the opening shot. Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), is bleary-eyed and worn out. Normally these scenes show us that the character has a hard night. With her liver spots and yellowed teeth, Bell looks as if every night is a hard night.
It is considered rote and a little cliche when a beautiful actress makes themselves unattractive. It is implied they are merely pining for an Oscar nomination. Curiously Christian Bale who seems allergic to playing a role that does not require some kind of total physical transformation is never accused of this.
Yes, Kidman is made up to look like a ragged hard living foul-mouthed noir archetype. But makeup is part of the craft and Kidman’s is such that I forgot I was watching Nicole Kidman. It’s not until Kusama flashes back to a young Bell that I was reminded of the movie star underneath.
Kusama does this on purpose. One is to show the vast ocean of difference between Bell as the young cocky undercover police officer and the present apathetic, seen it all cynical detective. The latter being an imperative of the genre. Noirs are rarely, if ever, linear in their storytelling.
Destroyer seems at first to be going in chronological order. The flashback is less abrupt because of, again, Kidman’s appearance. But as the film gradually unfolds something feels off. Scenes that come right after another make sense but subliminally something is missing. It’s not until later on that we begin to realize not everything we see has happened in the order we assume.
Do not be confused, Destroyer is not trying to be Memento. The time jumps are more subtle. It is not until the end do we start to fit the pieces together. The writers, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, along with Kusama, are less interested in the orders of events than they are in the unraveling of Bell’s own moral structure.
Bell’s partner both undercover and sexually Chris (Sebastian Stan), promises, their plan is solid. “No one gets a scratch.” It is a foolhardy promise. A promise whose own naivety only becomes more and more clear to Bell as time goes on.
Destroyer is less concerned with the mystery at the center of the plot than it is with Bell’s attempt at moral redemption. Destroyer is not a crime thriller but instead, a character study of one woman battling against fate so to put right what once went wrong. A stubborn reed against a stream which refuses to ebb.
“No one is accountable for anything!” Bell bellows while she is in the hospital checking in on her daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). In addition to her failures as a cop, she is also dealing with her failure as a mother. All of it tied to a decision she made while undercover that cost her more than she knew she had.
Noirs are the American equivalent of morality tales. Characters believe in things wholeheartedly and espouse principles they live by. The tragedy when they discover all they believe is a lie. Or when they are forced to follow through with their belief system even though it may cost them happiness. Ebert once said Noirs were uniquely American because, “…no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear, and betrayal unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.”
If not for the anchor and clarity of Kidman’s Bell the gloom and despair would be overwhelming. Yes, she is wearing makeup and prosthetic teeth, but all of that is merely trimming. Bell is exhausted and running on fumes of anger. Her betrayal is not one of principle but of herself. It is an act we understand and identify with and if we are honest a decision many of us would have made ourselves.
Kusama and Julie Kirkwood’s camera spends a great amount of time on faces. Allowing us to get a sense of a character as they mull over their actions and surroundings. Kirkwood’s lens somehow captures the despair of the Los Angeles landscape and adds it as a layer to Bell’s own purgatory. But all is not dark; such as the final scene between Bell and her daughter Shelby.
Neon lights flicker in the background. Bell attempts to explain her self to Shelby. Shelby wants nothing to do with her. She also desperately wants her mother in her life. In any other noir, the scene would most likely be a scene full of broken promises or some final parting words to a romantic partner. But Kusama instead opts for a resolution in some respects for Bell, and a faint hint of optimism for Shelby.
Kirkwood’s elegiac camera, Hay and Manfredi’s measured, script, and Kusama’s direction all collide for a brief beautiful moment of cinematic heartbreak. This is to say nothing of Kidman and Pettyjohn’s faces as they struggle to contain wordless emotions. It is a near perfect scene.
It would be clueless of me not to address the elephant in the room. Noirs, while essentially American, are also essentially about men. Women in noirs are more often than not idealized representations of sexuality. They either want to either love the hard-boiled private eye or kill him; sometimes both. Heroes in noirs, while romanticized by later generations, are often not the macho archetypes we’ve made of them.
The men in noirs fail constantly. They make wrong conclusions, bad decisions, and are often beaten or lose almost every fight. So does Kidman’s Bell. On one hand, this is consistent with the archetypes for the genre. But on the other hand, it also shows the exploitativeness casualness of violence against women in our society.
For instance, when Bell finds out Toby (James Jordan), a fellow member of Silas’s gang is out on early release. She goes to his home to question him about Silas. Toby is unable to move, all but chained to his bed as he battles cancer. He makes a deal with her. Information for a hand job. It’s hard to imagine Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler ever having their character suffer such an indignity no matter how obsessive the desire. Kusama and Kirkwood frame it in such a way that it borders on clinical.
Though Toby is dying and bedridden he still holds power over Bell. The act of indignity is uncomfortable to watch because it is just that; an act of indignity. Most likely Hay and Manfredi wrote the scene to show how far Bell would go to track down Silas. But Kusama and Kirkwood instead make the scene uncomfortable by showing us clearly how Bell is not enjoying it and Toby is. They strip the scene for what it really is, a rape scene; and we’re made to feel that way.
Bell may be a cop but she is not granted the respect or even authority her male counterparts are given upon sight. The corrupt attorney DiFranco (Bradley Whitford) doesn’t blink an eye when his hired thug beats Bell to the ground. Even Silas (Toby Kebbell) the name that haunts the edges of every frame of Destroyer uses women and discards them in a way other films would have taken for granted.
But Kusama allows the discarded a voice. Petra (Tatiana Maslany) confesses how distraught she is that Silas doesn’t love her anymore. Bell winces at Petar’s confessions; not out empathy for her current predicament. But at how the woman she remembers as a confident and strong sister figure is now a weeping, drug-addled mess. What I’m trying to say is that traditionally women in noir films are glamorous and iconic. But Kusama lets them be human and Kirkwood’s camera lingers on their faces marked from life and abuse. The women are actual characters within their own tragedy; with motivations and desires beyond Bell’s own. They do not exist to be merely desired.
Despite all this, Bell, while a woman, is still a white woman and a cop. Pay attention to the outer edges of Destroyer and you’ll see Kusama slyly showing Bell’s free pass due to her whiteness. Ragged and filthy she arrives onto a crime scene that isn’t hers and is politely told she shouldn’t be here. A fellow detective, a WoC is standing nearby, perfectly dressed and put together.
Bell’s partner Antonio (Shamier Anderson), is a black man who is conscientious and well tailored. All through Destroyer Bell shows up late to work, often times, not at all. Yet, Antonio, it is implied, is dutiful, punctual, and covers for Bell. Antonio and the nameless woman at the crime scene must look presented and follow the book or else. Bell’s whiteness, in a way, protects her.
The parity of how being a woman and being a white woman both helps and impede Bell is an underlying theme of Destroyer. Kusama never lets the idea overwhelm her story. She instead uses it to buoy her exploration of a woman struggling to rectify a fractured moral code.
“I’m so mad it’s burned a hole in my brain.” Heroism always comes with a price in noirs. Bell’s final act is as close to heroism as noir characters are allowed.
The final scene is beautiful and in its simplicity and haunting in the implication. Destroyer is an elegiac and intense due to its dreamlike structure. Kusama never flinches as Bell’s claws her way to some kind of redemption. Whether or not she succeeds, is up to us to decide.