Destroyer (Film Review)

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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.

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Bait Hides the Hook: Laird Barron’s Swift to Chase (Review)

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Part of me wondered whether I should post anything about the latest Laird Barron because for a moment I thought, what else is there really left to say about the guy that hasn’t already been said, that I haven’t already said, that we don’t already know? He’s a visceral, commanding, awe-inspiring writer who just keeps pushing the boundaries of genre writing. So far, so Barron. Anyone familiar with his name or work knows this already.

But I wrote this review anyway, and I’m posting it, and, sure, it might fall into that pattern I seem to have established where I read a book I love and then extol its virtues in a thousand-odd-word post – which, in my more self-loathing moments, feels like it probably comes across as just an exercise in how many adoring adjectives I can fit into a sentence. But it’s not that at all. Those adoring adjectives aren’t an exercise in anything except how I honestly feel about the noun I’m attaching them to.

Also, fuck all that doubt. If you like something, if you love something, if it fills you with joy or wonder or awe or terror or adrenaline, and if it makes you feel like there are still new things to be discovered in the world and new ways and angles to look at it, then you need to shout about that and share it with as many people who will listen. Plus, if this review compels just one person to pick up Barron’s – and any of his vast number of brilliant contemporaries’ – work for the first time, then all that seemingly redundant gushing is worth it.

But enough about that. Adoring adjectives await…

If you thought you knew what to expect from Laird Barron, his latest (fourth) collection – and sixth major publication – Swift to Chase, tears down all those preconceptions. He breaks a lot of new ground here, especially in terms of technique, structure and style. His Old Leech Mythos – which makes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos look like the Teletubbies – is present and accounted for, but Barron attacks it from some unexpected angles. He seems to be going out on an experimental limb both with the individual stories as well as the larger picture that’s pieced together as you move through the collection.

The opening story, “Screaming Elk, MT”, introduces recurring badass Jessica Mace, and there’s nary a mention of Old Leech and Co., though it’s not exactly devoid of mortal harm, scheming sleazebags and otherworldly terror. It’s a great, compact piece of writing that cuts to the bone, and to the chase.

If I have a complaint about this story, it’s that this is (spoiler alert) one of the few Barron tales where the protagonist escapes largely unharmed, and the monster seems to be vanquished a little too easily, let alone at all. More often than not, Barron’s antagonists are as insurmountable and eternal as the universe from which they spring, and there isn’t a sliver of hope to be glimpsed for the human characters, alive or not. Jessica Mace, on the other hand, seems to unpick that weave, and although she’s not without her share of suffering and madness, there’s still something of her left to keep going.

In a lot of ways, Screaming Elk sets the tone for the rest of the collection inasmuch as it’s a character-driven piece with great pacing and a fast, canny narration. Regarding the latter, Barron doesn’t waste his words, but his prose is far from frugal. It’s lean, dangerous, whip-smart and prison-hard.

Barron’s use of language has always been one of his best assets, but here there’s a sense of . . . snazziness and wit, which I won’t say was absent from his previous work, but has certainly evolved into something more complex in Swift to Chase. His antagonists, particularly the prolific Children of Old Leech, have always possessed a certain black wit, a predatory playfulness that seems inherent to their immortal, hedonistic race. His human characters aren’t exactly dead-eyed chumps either, but the black humour is on much more prominent display in this collection than I’ve noticed in Barron’s work before.

I laughed out loud more than once at the acerbic one-liners scattered throughout these stories, their deadpan delivery an organic part of the narration rather than an overt joke or attempt at humour. Which I guess is another of Barron’s strengths; marbling his stories with so many elements that work with a beautiful synchronicity but never overpower the narrative’s momentum.

For me, the part of any Laird Barron story that sticks in the mind is usually the scare, the moment of alien horror, the big monster scene and the skin-crawl that leads to it. But what stayed with me here was the people and their electric interactions. The horror elements are as chilling as always, but the most memorable parts of Swift to Chase are its moments of human nuance, of bonding or treachery or tension. Dialogue and body language fizz off each other with an amazing energy few writers can equal.

This definitely isn’t to say that there are no moments of sheer awesome weirdness on display here, though. There’s a glorious B-movie ambience to “the worms crawl in,”, a story whose several twists and turns aren’t even the coolest things about it. A reimagining of the mythic Wild Hunt that knocks that last Witcher game’s version on its arse, “Frontier Death Song” is just begging (in my head, anyway) for a blood-soaked film adaptation. “Ardor” goes more traditional Barron, with a noir-flavoured story about the hunt for an obscure old movie star and a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, although its nonlinear structure throws both protagonist and reader around a timeline that never does any favours for the former. “Ears Prick Up” is perhaps the wildest of all, a straight-up pulp sci-fi adventure eloquently narrated by, as the blurb has it, “an atomic-powered cyborg war dog” cutting down enemies with his master in a dark, Warhammer 40,000-esque future.

But what really sets Swift to Chase apart from Barron’s previous work is its structure, the way he experiments with form and style and interconnected narratives on a level we haven’t seen from him before. A shared universe and intersecting characters have certainly been present in Barron’s previous three collections and two novels (and that lightbulb moment when you discover some reference or connective tissue is magical), but aside from the overarching mythos, these have been smaller nods or clues for the more canny reader to pick up on. In Swift to Chase, the connections are impossible to miss – in fact, some stories seem to rely quite heavily on the context built up by earlier works in the collection. Dead characters reappear, minor players take on larger roles, and genealogies are filled in as the book progresses. It’s a masterful structure, and must have required one hell of a flowchart to keep track of. I wonder if Barron plans out this web of complexity or if it just comes together as he writes. Either way, wow.

For a collection that fits together so well, there’s a nice variety of stories on offer here; even those that revolve around certain incidents and characters play around with structure and point of view enough to have a unique flavour.

Every story here, bar the last, was originally published elsewhere, in anthologies or literary magazines. Given that so many of the stories here go hand in hand, mostly revolving in some way around a handful of bloody events and characters, it seems to me much more beneficial to have them all together in the one collection, providing that larger context and filling in the dark puzzle of their circumstances in a way that individual publication just couldn’t achieve. So tightly knit are they that some of this book comes pretty close to looking like a mosaic novel.

Sure, a lot of pieces work well on their lonesome, but these – especially stories like “Ears Prick Up”, “Frontier Death Song”, “Ardor”, “the worms crawl in,”, and “Black Dog” – are either vaguely linked to the collection’s major arc, or are present by way of their Alaskan heritage, a setting which is one of the uniting factors for the collection as a whole.

Personally, nothing’s ever going to beat the sheer terror and awe of my favourite of Barron’s previous collections, Occultation, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, but that’s not a slight against Swift to Chase by any means. This is a bold and exciting family of work that subverted all my expectations and surprised me at every turn. Barron’s narrative choices are always interesting, and the tricks he pulls off here are clever enough to be innovative, but never feel like empty illusions engineered for nothing but their shock value. Honestly, I’m such a fan of this guy’s work that when he releases a new book, everything else on my to-read list has to wait it out as I devour his scrumptious prose, and then find myself hungry and pining for more once it’s over. That said, my love for all things Barron isn’t a blind love, but one built on the talent and hard work that shines through in his writing, and, at risk of sounding like a cheap salesman on a late night TV commercial, it’s a love you too can nurture and enjoy for five easy monthly payments of sanity, and maybe your soul, and—

Okay, I’ll stop. Just go read Swift to Chase. Or anything else by Barron. Please. Do it. I’ll love you if you do, but I’ll know if you don’t.

An Orgy of Strange – John Claude Smith’s Riding the Centipede (Review)

As soon as I read the words “orgy of strange” in John Claude Smith’s debut novel, I knew I had to use it for the title of this review. It perfectly crystallises the feel of Riding the Centipede, a kind of grungy beatnik horror pulp noir that throws everything it’s got in your face. Needless to say, everything it’s got is viscous and toxic and fucking awesome.

At its core, Centipede is a chase narrative, the road from injection A to mastication B littered with weird, violent obstacles. Involved in this chase are three protagonists through which the novel cycles in alternating chapters: private investigator Terrance Blake, hired by Hollywood socialite Jane Teagarden to find her missing brother, Marlon; the murderous and – literally – nuclear Rudolf Chernobyl, who’s hunting Marlon for his own mysterious employer; and finally, the elusive quarry himself, the tense-fluid Marlon Teagarden, driven by his drug-soaked quest to ride the titular centipede as he makes his way through the terrifying, horrific world of the “dark frontier” in search of this ultimate, reality-bending experience.

These characters are all both interesting and, let me just say, pretty damn cool. Check out those names, for a start, the way they roll so deliciously off the tongue.

There did seem to be an adherence to some clichés here, like the embittered PI haunted by the death of his child, but Blake’s arc – and the others’ – is what makes him unique among hardboiled dicks. What I’d initially thought of as a formulaic throwaway backstory, a flimsy impetus for rote brooding, actually proved me utterly wrong by culminating in one of the most tender, tragic scenes in the whole book, a concise piece of character work that left me a little emotionally bruised. The point at which this flashback takes place is also part of its impact; Smith gives it the heartwrenching/-soaring circularity of a great blockbuster film. What else could you want in a book but great/weird action beats, and an emotional connection to those beats.

Smith’s novel is a bit of a love letter to the Beat Generation, and particularly William S Burroughs – to the extent that Burroughs features as a character, a “man who dreamed of becoming an insect” – but it also references a range of films, literature and art.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of the Beat Generation writers – they’re on my list though, I swear! – so there are probably a few nuances and references in this book that went over my head or just seemed like another feather of weirdness in the narrative’s abundant plumage. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying said weirdness. Smith really pulls you in to the sticky, dirty world he creates. It’s a dark world but certainly not a sombre one. Centipede’s is a colourful darkness, of blood and vomit and viscera all soaked in a liberal dousing of batshit crazy. It’s like that scene with all the lizards in Fear and Loathing, only the lizards are real and they’re about to take a bite. All of this engaged me in a very visual, tactile way; I’d love to see a no-holds-barred film version by someone like David Cronenberg or Ben Wheatley or even Guillermo del Toro.

The plotting isn’t squeaky-clean, but then hygiene isn’t something I’d associate with any element of Centipede. Smith tackles some fairly dark themes here – the obvious ones being drug addiction and child abuse – in an often graphic and unapologetic way. These elements don’t overtake the sheer fun of the book, though; they’re the dark fallible anchors that ground the characters in this weird, ugly world they find themselves in. The narrative instead wears its mask of drugged-out loony horror proudly, grinning ear to ear.

If I have a complaint it’s that, unfortunately, the number of grammatical blips and errors in the text kept snagging at my immersion. I think this probably comes down to the editing rather than the author, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, just not exactly ideal.

I felt that the dialogue, too, was occasionally problematic. It seemed to alternate between fizzing and fumbling, a snappy colloquial with a vernacular rhythm all its own at times, at others a little too formal and rehearsed.

But these are minor complaints in an otherwise snappy, vibrant novel. There are some absolute gems of linguistic talent here; beautiful, clever turns of phrase that encourage a lingering eye, like when “Blake’s thoughts” for example, “were dogpaddling to the edge of understanding, but never getting to shore,” or the moment he notices a “quirky, scratchy sound, like electricity gone to rot.”

Ultimately, the book felt like a child’s drawing of madness rendered in bright, thick crayon strokes. It was fascinating and promising and not at all what I expected, and I can’t wait to read whatever Smith produces next.