(Karyn Kusama, US, 2019, 120 minutes)
The film begins with a body. As all detective dramas must.
A thoroughly de-glamorized Nicole Kidman, in Charlize Theron-in-Monster-mode, plays the grubby gumshoe at the center of Karyn Kusama's sun-blasted noir. Granted, in Patty Jenkins's Monster, Theron played a criminal (serial killer Aileen Wuornos), whereas Kidman's Det. Erin Bell is a crime-solver, but she shares the unkempt hair and charisma-deprived personality. I wouldn't call her ugly, though; it's more that she looks unwell and chronically unhappy.
Bell suspects that the victim has a connection to a case she worked 17 years ago. Back then, the fresh-faced Bell worked undercover with Chris (an effectively low-key Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a robbery ring. She has the same three dots tattooed on the back of her neck as the dead man.
As set-ups go, it's a familiar one, but it's always a pleasure to watch Kusama shape genre to her own ends as she did in Girlfight, a sports drama about a teen girl determined to be a boxer (Michelle Rodriguez in her silver-screen debut), and The Invitation, a horror film about a dinner party gone terribly awry (I haven’t seen Jennifer’s Body or Æon Flux, her sole big-budget production, which featured Theron in the title role).
To solve the case, Bell has to revisit her past, which helps to explain her present, like the estrangement between her and her 16-year-old daughter, Shelby (a suitably pouty Jade Pettyjohn). Bell's drinking led the court to award her ex (a bearded, sad-eyed Scoot McNairy) custody, but now Shelby appears to be heading down the same path. When Bell finds out that she's seeing Jay (Beau Knapp), a lanky lowlife several years her senior, she tries to intervene, but the bitter, defiant Shelby isn't having it.
|Michiel Huisman and Tammy Blanchard in The Invitation|
And then Bell goes rogue. She's already told her partner to let her handle things herself, after which she takes a hostage (Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany) and cuts off all communications with the LAPD (as embodied by Toby Huss). If it isn't clear from the start, it's clear by the end: this is a woman who doesn't think she has anything left to lose, so she sets out to solve the crime her own way, thus "fixing" the past as much as anyone can. I'm pretty sure Janis Joplin wrote a song about that kinda worldview.
Kidman is adept at capturing Bell during two very different stages of her life, though it's always a risk to play a character so closed off from the world, especially when she's surrounded by others who are equally off-putting, but the script from The Invitation's Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi allows Bell's façade to develop just enough cracks to let a little vulnerability shine through. Although Kusama probably didn't consult Lynne Ramsay while working on her film, Destroyer almost feels like a companion to You Were Never Really Here with Kidman playing a female version of Joaquin Phoenix's brutal, but not entirely dehumanized hitman.
“I'm not good," Bell admits at her most vulnerable, except that it isn't true, and the most tragic thing about her isn't who she is and what she's done--and she's done some pretty bad things--but that she can't see that.
Destroyer opens at AMC Pacific Place on Friday, January 18.