Some directors have a distinctive visual, tonal or thematic style that makes their work easily recognisable; you can usually spot a David Fincher or Wes Anderson film from a single scene. Best case scenario, this familiarity can be comforting without getting tedious. After all, if we enjoy something, we want more like it. Other filmmakers have a less obvious signature, but once you get into their work there’s a certain indefinable feel, a sense of cohesion, the way Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and You Were Never Really Here share something that goes beyond their challenging, unsettling subject matter.
Others yet are more eclectic, surprising and delighting us with their output every time. You wouldn’t necessarily recognise two of their films back to back without prior knowledge, but there’s a joy in the level of variety on display, across genre and tone and subject. One of those directors is Karyn Kusama. Each film she makes is more different and thrilling than the last, and I always look forward to what she does next: Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body are both severely underrated; and 2015’s The Invitation is one of my all-time favourites and an absolute knockout, a paranoid, claustrophobic film about old friends reuniting for a dinner party that goes horribly, violently wrong. From science fiction to horror-comedy to horror-thriller, Kusama’s latest film is a grimy noir set in the wasteland of California, and just like her previous work, this one does the opposite of disappoint.
Destroyer follows Nicole Kidman’s detective Erin Bell, mentally and physically decrepit, as she embarks on a hunt for the leader of a criminal gang in which she was placed undercover as a young cop several years earlier. The plot here is lean, as emaciated and single-minded as its protagonist. Nobody sits around explaining plot points in dialogue meant more for the audience than the characters, and exposition is thin on the ground in the best possible way. We switch between Bell’s dogged investigation in the present, and flashbacks of her time undercover with fellow cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) as they insinuate themselves within the criminal gang led by the emotionally volatile Silas (a magnetic Toby Kebbell).
As a singular character piece, Destroyer’s focus is firmly, claustrophically stuck on Kidman as Detective Bell. Much has been made of her performance and her physical appearance in the film, both of which are as gruelling as they are captivating. Kidman lets the character swallow her up, and her performance is nothing short of astounding. It’s not just the makeup here but the way she moves, physically inhabiting the pain of every punch and kick and hangover. Over the course of the film she accrues these injuries with a mounting sense of exhaustion, but Bell powers through. Part of the joy of this film is the inability to look away from her as she shuffles and snarls and scraps her way through the film, heading towards what we can’t imagine will be a particularly happy ending for anyone involved.
She’s broken and miserable and nasty, all but estranged from anyone who ever cared about her. Often either drunk or hungover, she tries to solve most of her problems with violence, but her seemingly no-fucks-given approach is undercut with a tragic desperation. The actions of the past weigh heavily on her: shining through the violence and Bell’s drive for vengeance is her fear of handing her mistakes down to her rebellious teenaged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), whose presence serves as an emotional anchor for the film, Bell’s one tiny hope amid all the rot.
The rest of the cast is phenomenal too, even in peripheral roles. Some pack enough punch to make the most of their limited screen time, like Bradley Whitford’s scumbag lawyer, Tatiana Maslany grunging it up as Silas’ lapdog, or James Jordan as a washed-up member of the gang; an early scene with Jordan’s character was enough to make me physically recoil from the screen. Jade Pettyjohn balances adolescent rebellion and emotional turmoil as Bell’s daughter, while Beau Knapp is deliciously slimy as her thuggish boyfriend. Sebastian Stan is solid, but his character could have been a little more fleshed out, and Scoot McNairy doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Bell’s estranged partner. In fact, if I had one small criticism of the film, it’s that the supporting cast aren’t quite as interesting as the lead, but then this is a story with a tight focus, everyone caught in the vortex of Bell’s catastrophic choices.
Destroyer looks and plays like one of those grimy, violent thrillers from the seventies, its California a place you probably wouldn’t want to live if someone paid you, a place where youth is fleeting and violence just around the corner. Bodies decay and shrivel, but everybody keeps on shuffling through this brilliantly shot hell. Theodore Shapiro’s score is mesmerising, too, accompanying the action with industrial growls and fervent strings, as much evocative of the film’s violence as its quieter, more heartbreaking moments.
Critics have been raving about Kidman’s performance in Destroyer, and she deserves all the praise for her role here, but without a great script (by regular Kusama collaborators, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also penned The Invitation), and such strong direction from Kusama, the film wouldn’t be half as good as it is. Every element here comes together beautifully, cast and crew delivering a film so gritty you can feel it under your fingernails and at the back of your throat. Destroyer is violent and grimy and tense, but it’s also steeped in sadness, a film about the choices and mistakes we make that change our lives for the worse, and set us on a collision course with tragedy. There’s a sense of the inescapable to this tragedy, a circularity that infuses the film without overdoing it. As Bell tells her daughter in her hoarse, unpunctuated drawl: “I’m mad I’m still mad it’s burnt a circuit in my brain.” Destroyer will burn a circuit in your brain, too.