starring Nicole Kidman, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell
written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi
directed by Karyn Kusama
by Walter Chaw A laconic noir that promises for a while to be fierce before settling into being familiar, Karyn Kusama's Destroyer drips with style and atmosphere even if its destined-to-be-lauded central performance by Nicole Kidman lacks the same mystique. She plays LA Detective Erin Bell, a woman beset by demons of alcohol and regret that have left her looking cadaverous: rotted gums and hollow eyes. Most of the performance is fright make-up, the rest Kidman speaking breathily, heavily, and maybe overdoing the drunk swaying and slurring a tad. Erin's daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) hates her, of course, and has taken to hanging out with much-older street tough Jay (Beau Knapp), probably just to piss her off. Erin's estranged husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy) seems nice, though, if scarred by her ferocious temper and penchant for vomiting and passing out, usually in that order. Kidman has been extraordinary in small, personal films like this. Her work in Birth is generational; Dogville, too. But Destroyer is too programmatic to make much of an impact. This kind of image-slumming is too familiar by now, and there's not one moment where it's not Nicole Kidman doing a performance up there. Pity.
There's a beautiful sequence in a broken-down dive bar where Erin and Shelby forge a connection at last, but then Erin leaves her sitting by herself in an Edward Hopper neon oubliette. Visually, this is a gorgeous picture, shot with confident elegance by The Blackcoat's Daughter DP Julie Kirkwood. Think a Ross MacDonald novel as imagined by David Fincher, although Destroyer relies a bit too much on slow-motion to poeticize its violence and the kids skateboarding their metaphorical arcs. Even the blood streaming away from the corpse that sets the film in motion is a statement: the equalizer bands on a sanguinary amplifier. The best moment in the film is when Erin harasses an unctuous DiFranco (Bradley Whitford, handily walking away with the movie), a confrontation that devolves into chaos and ends with a kid in a batting cage, frozen into inaction by this sudden disruption of what used to be an idyllic life, albeit with an asshole for a dad. It's in this scene that the full potential of Destroyer is briefly realized: a Point Blank-ish noir revenge procedural, short on exposition and long on the bruising, single-minded drive to understand before the curtain falls. Right before an extended, expressionistic ending that saps what's left of the energy flagging for the duration, there's a sense that one of the picture's emotional touchstones might be Arthur Penn's Night Moves, what with its detectives, perhaps mortally wounded, circling the answer as it sinks to unrecoverable deeps. Alas, then come the literal and emotional endings, providing order to a universe that at least aesthetically seems irredeemable. It's a contradiction that doesn't resolve, and so Destroyer is ultimately a gorgeous noir gloss stretched over an ordered universe. It's Chinatown, but the daughter's going to be okay.