There’s a fine line between archetype and cliché—between characters and situations that gain power from their familiarity and ones we tune out because it seems we’ve seen them a thousand times before. Bad filmmakers trip over it all the time, and so do good ones.
In Karyn Kusama’s new cop drama Destroyer, Nicole Kidman’s self-consciously and spectacularly unflattering LAPD lifer Erin Bell is the kind of hard-driving, harder-drinking loose cannon familiar from countless movies dating back to (and before) Dirty Harry. There isn’t much originality to her off-duty pursuit of a ruthless bank robber with whom she has a history; when she tells her superior to let her have this perp for herself, it could just as easily be a Simpsons parody of a hard-boiled action film as the real thing. What’s subversive, at least in theory, is the revision of this familiar alpha-male type into a female character, as well as the question of whether the accompanying uglification of Destroyer’s beautiful star—the most conspicuous such makeover since Charlize Theron transformed into Aileen Wuornos for Monster—accentuates or undermines the film’s intended incursions on both genre and gender conventions.
There are two ways to look at Kusama’s decision to so deliberately emphasize her anti-heroine’s beaten down, broken-nosed visage, which makes her look—to quote the title of another upcoming LAPD epic—like she’s been dragged across concrete. It’s either a confrontational challenge to an audience that’s grown cozy with rumpled male movie stars, whether their mutations are a matter of craft (Robert De Niro, Christian Bale) or extracurricular activities (Nick Nolte, Mickey Rourke), or it’s a gesture of stylization—a hint that Erin cuts a symbolically de-idealized figure. Guilt, rage, and booze have been eating her up for years, and now she wears her insides on the outside.
Whether you find the result of Kusama and Kidman’s decision to throw caution (and moisturizer) to the wind mesmerizing or merely ghoulish (it impressed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association), it’s worth pointing out that Destroyer is all about disguises and keeping up appearances. As the film’s structure gradually reveals itself, we see that the seeds of Erin’s decay were planted 17 years earlier, on an undercover detail that required its own form of masquerade.
The parallel chronologies of Destroyer aren’t totally novel, but there’s real finesse in the way that Kusama navigates the double timeline, leveraging the mystery of Erin’s present-tense vendetta with the resurfaced heist maestro Silas (Toby Kebbell) against the slow accrual of information about how and why such a promising cop got so fucked up. In her younger days, Erin was an FBI agent tasked with infiltrating Silas’s gang as part of a double act with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan). We first see them dressing punky and rehearsing intimacy as part of their cover story and then succumbing to teenage-style infatuation, a reckless decision that nevertheless increases their authenticity in Silas’s eyes. We’re shown just enough of this story line to wonder what could have happened without ever doubting that it was terrible. The proof of catastrophe is in Erin’s lone-wolf act, which has alienated not only her colleagues on the force but her 16-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who regards her mother with the same wary fear as the low-level criminals Erin bullies and intimidates on her quixotic quest for revenge.
What unites the two Erins we see, beyond the startling disparity in appearance (Kidman is completely convincing in the flashbacks) is that they’re both playing roles, but the older one is playing for keeps. The contrast between a fearless professional with nothing to lose and her older self, who’s lost nearly everything and seems uninterested or incapable of holding onto the leftovers, is affecting in a way that transcends the mechanisms of the plot. It also extends to some of the other characters, who are similarly glimpsed in before-and-after incarnations.
The most haunting of these is James Jordan’s sleazy ex-con Toby, who, even more than Erin, has suffered the ravages of time and self-harm, and whose big scene—begging Kidman for a handjob as he lays wheezing on his deathbed—is an example of where Kusama’s insistence on pushing the limits of good taste either backfires or goes supernova: It’s grotesque, uncomfortable, funny, and, given the script’s not-so-buried subtexts about regret, revenge, and exploitation, as thematically on point as it is off-putting.
Kusama has never really been much of a provocateur, but she has had the kind of rough, uneven ride in Hollywood that could understandably yield an act of nasty, gloves-off filmmaking. An acolyte of the American indie-film legend John Sayles, Kusama broke through with the muscular, palpably handmade Girlfight, a boxing melodrama that served as a dual breakout for the director and her star, Michelle Rodriguez. A critical and commercial hit, Girlfight was the sort of calling card that studios respond to, and Kusama was rushed from the minor to major leagues in near-record time, signing on for the Matrix-style sci-fi epic Aeon Flux. In theory, tying a director whose debut examined and exalted in female power and physicality to a millennial genre film was a good idea, but the departure of Paramount head Sherry Lansing mid-production left Kusama fighting a losing battle against executives who resisted her vision; the film was a disaster and rerouted the filmmaker’s industry trajectory, if not her sense of principle.
Since 2009, Kusama has settled into the horror genre, helming the imperfect but underrated Jennifer’s Body—still Diablo Cody’s best script, pivoting on the great joke that skinny indie-rock poseurs are secretly doing the devil’s work with every whiny, Postal Service–style hook—and the superb, suggestive ensemble thriller The Invitation, a worthy companion piece to Get Out, in its invocation of well-heeled millennial-bourgeois sociopathology. She also crafted the most ambitious installment of the all-female horror anthology XX, riffing on the plot and themes of Rosemary’s Baby. In interviews, Kusama has talked about how her experiences being undermined on Aeon Flux have made her wary and self-reliant, on top of the fact that she’s still—unfortunately—something of a novelty as a commercially oriented female filmmaker. While it might seem facile to draw a line between Erin’s ornery-yet-redemptive arc and Kusama’s own fortunes, the patience and investment she has for her imperfect protagonist is ample.
As for Kidman, she’s thrived in masochistically conceived roles before, but she’s never externalized toughness like this. Where in movies like Dogville and Birth she ably embodied characters buckling under physical and psychological pressures, here she’s equipped—and at times, scarily eager —to dish out punishment. Because of the physical transformation, there’s a temptation to write her acting in Destroyer off as a kind of stunt—one whose ostensible risks are, in terms of playing to Oscar voters in love with the idea of physical mutation, bound up with rewards. But I think she’s superb, disappearing into the role, rather than the makeup. Considering Kusama’s fascination with horror, Kidman’s choice to play the present-tense Erin as a shambling, zombie-like presence makes perfect sense, and the feeling that the character is something of a dead woman walking—emotionally speaking, at least—works well in this context.
Kidman even manages to wrestle the worst of the script’s tough-talking dialogue to a draw. Kusama’s camera, meanwhile, is typically eloquent, tracking across the flat, ominous Los Angeles landscapes with purpose. Her visual models here are the Kathryn Bigelow of Blue Steel and Point Break and, especially, the Michael Mann of Heat (who, between Destroyer film and the mid-90s heist cosplay of Den of Thieves, really should have spent 2018 raking in royalties), and her sensitivity to exterior and interior settings and command of screen space (which peaks in a mid-film submachine-gun shoot-out) are impressive without being overbearing. Not all of the staging is excellent (the most crucial of the flashbacks is a bit botched) and a late-in-the-game stab at lyricism feels forced—an intrusion that belongs primarily to the script. As a piece of film direction, Destroyer has enough heft, momentum, and texture to hopefully earn Kusama more opportunities at this elevated budget level.