Three Reasons to Watch: Destroyer
Every Monday, Curzon or a guest editor recommends a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection, offering three reasons to look back at something you might have missed. This week, it's Karyn Kusama’s female-driven take on the LA crime thriller.
Detective Erin Bell has seen too much of the seedy underbelly of American life. The sins she’s witnessed – and those she has committed herself – are etched into her face. As she opens her eyes at the beginning of Destroyer, looking directly into the camera, her pupils are so dilated that they barely react to LA’s harsh morning light. Her skin is blotchy and when she exits her car, her gait – which a colleague describes as “dragging anchor” – betrays years of abuse, through drugs and drink, and through her brutal form of policing. That Karyn Kusama chose to open her film with such an extreme close-up on her protagonist’s face is a bold move. Bolder still was her decision to cast Nicole Kidman, the epitome of the modern Hollywood star, as Erin. Then again, Kidman has consistently proven herself a savvy actor when it comes to playing against type.
Destroyer is that rare thing in contemporary cinema – a ruthlessly effective, uncompromising and ultimately satisfying crime thriller. It’s intelligent, tautly composed and continues Kusama’s fascinating project of re-envisioning genres through a feminist perspective. Her first feature, Girlfight (2000), gave us a heart-stopping boxing drama with a star-making performance by Michelle Rodriguez. Kusama followed it with Æon Flux (2005), a sci-fi action thriller that identified Charlize Theron’s kick-ass appeal a good decade before Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Atomic Blonde (2017). Jennifer’s Body (2009) saw the filmmaker turn her hand to horror, with both villain and hero played by women (Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried respectively). If this film and Æon Flux found Kusama battling over final cut with major studios and, ultimately, losing out, a few years working in television helped her hone her craft. It’s evident in the leanness of Destroyer’s narrative thrust.
Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay, which shifts between multiple timelines, is expansive enough to allow space for Kusama and Kidman to develop Erin’s character. And as the pre-credit sequence makes clear, this detective is compromised to the core. Unable to live with her past actions, she is a walking corpse – a ghost of a human being who now lives only for her work. So, when the criminal responsible for destroying her life reappears in LA, Erin sees one final chance for redemption; an opportunity to make up for her past as a less-than-perfect cop, an absent mother and a car crash of a human being. But with Kusama at the helm, Destroyer never plays things straight and it’s not long before Erin is enmeshed once more in a tangled web of conspiracy, deceit and violence.
• Nicole Kidman. Her performance here ranks alongside her duplicitous weathergirl in To Die For (1995), her roles in The Others (2001), Birth (2001) and The Paperboy (2012), and her recent outstanding turns on the small screen in ‘Top of the Lake’ and ‘Big Little Lies’ (both 2017).
• The bank heist. There’s a hint of what’s to come with an earlier robbery gone wrong. But the heist that pits Erin against her old foe is brilliantly executed. It might lack the epic quality of Michael Mann’s centrepiece in Heat (1995), but few cinematic robberies are played out with such ferocity.
• Los Angeles. The city has been the backdrop to so many noir thrillers and crime dramas that it has become an all-too-familiar setting. However, Kusama avoids the usual iconography, either by spending time in the city’s hinterland or shooting in empty locales, which add to the Destroyer’s haunting quality.
Nicole Kidman is both startling and utterly convincing as a damaged LA cop, whose past catches up with her when the victim of an execution is discovered.
Erin Bell’s life is a mess. Reeling from an undercover operation that went tragically wrong years before, she is shunned by colleagues. But a body marked with a distinctive tattoo raises ghosts from her past. She soon finds herself caught up in a race against time, to settle debts, stop a crime spree and finally seek reconciliation with her estranged daughter. Karyn Kusama’s (Girlfight) muscular, knife-edge thriller recalls Michael Mann in its evocation of LA’s underworld and Kidman is on top form as a detective living life too close to the edge.
Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is available to watch now on Curzon Home Cinema