When trying to think of a title for this review my mind went to all the Nicole Kidman films that have come before and the one that I remembered most vividly was Rabbit Hole. A film about grief and climbing out of the pit of despair that consumes you, it is the exact opposite of Destroyer. Karyn Kusama’s film is a film about someone falling deeper and deeper, so far that the light is gone, the way out is impossible and the only route you can take is to go further down.
Telling the story of Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a broken police officer whose past assignment undercover for the FBI comes back to haunt her 17 years after the fact. As she tracks down the people involved in the case she relives the memories of a time before everything changed and her life became what it is now. As she gets closer to putting her past to bed, she has to contend with the mess she is causing in the present.
While it would be sufficient to say that Destroyer is a bold, boundary pushing thriller that should act as a high water mark for other filmmakers, it is also a lesson in building tension. Not only does it use its dual timeline story structure to provide brief respites from the chaos of the present but it also plays on the conventional idea of what makes a crime drama. An utterly breathless ordeal, Kusama plays on expectations and the audience’s own insecurities to push you to breaking point.
The natural convention that crime is dark, dank and messy is flipped here, as everything that happens here happens in the light of day. Destroyer doesn’t find its tone in the shadows, this noir tinged tale basks in the glow of the beating sun and the destructive nature of it. You can feel the heat of it as it shines with an intensity that sucks the air out of your lungs. While some films find tension by the things that are hidden in the shadows, Kusama is more afraid of what happens right in front of us in the light of day.
A grandiose and lush picture that is both large in scale and scope while being harrowing and intimate with some divine close-ups and a script that delves into the romance of a story that has no right to be romantic. Yet it is. Involving and upsetting, this is a film of grand gestures and even bolder choices, something that proves to expound everything that follows.
Determined to craft a crime story with staying power, Kusama has made an indelible story of how we are all made up of defining moments, some that make us or break us. These choices are scattered throughout, the outlines of enigmatic characters, undone by time and choices that have filled them with regret and a stubborn mentality. The flashbacks not only tell Erin’s story but they craft the world around her too. The choices she makes act like a virus, infecting the people around her.
Despite a unrecognisable turn by Kidman, this is an ensemble story and it doesn’t work without some equally thoughtful and spot on work by Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan and Bradley Whitford with the latter sinking into the recesses of depravity, a father without morals, trying desperately to teach his son how to be just as bad as him. The idea that we carry our problems forward through our children echoes throughout as Erin struggles to break through to her own daughter, an equally proud and uncontrollable force.
However it is Kidman who breaks the mould here. While it takes a quick moment to really come to terms with how much of a performance it is, the ferocity of it overwhelms you quickly. In her hands Erin is a compendium of untapped emotion. Full of anger, shame and guilt, Erin is an imperfect woman in an imperfect world and while she is nowhere near decent, she is fiercely protective. Kidman bites into her, bringing out the regret she hides from those around her. Erin and Kidman by extension is a woman rolling around in the mud of her mistakes hoping to god that those around her don’t get covered too.
This is the kind of ambitious storytelling that makes waves and Kusama punches this point home with a finishing twist that sneaks up and knocks you for six. Fast-paced with a closeness that makes many of its moments uncomfortable, edge of your seat viewing. Few films push the cords Destroyer does while making it look easy and for that I am exceedingly grateful.