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In the new crime thriller "Destroyer," director Karyn Kusama has an intuitive feel for Los Angeles, its sun-blasted concrete, its overpasses providing shade for skateboarders—seen only in silhouette—the sidewalk churches covered in murals, the little unfashionable neighborhoods in stark contrast with the rolling greens of the mighty and corrupted rich. It's Los Angeles as diverse wasteland.
"Destroyer" is about a detective ( Nicole Kidman ) who, 20 years before, had such a traumatic experience during an undercover operation that she never bounced back. "Destroyer" shares many similarities with the spate of films in the 1970s about the corruption of law enforcement, and frustrated cops who resort to vigilante justice since good old law and order doesn't move fast enough. Erin, the cop in question, is a wreck of a human, her life destroyed, her career and reputation on the rocks. Climbing uphill, she sets out to make the past right. This is a pretty rote story, and many of the plot points beggar belief, but Kusama's flourishes help somewhat to elevate the material into something more meditative, a character study of a woman in ruins.
Flowing back and forth in time, "Destroyer" shows the past in flashes, the unfolding of the undercover gig, and the choice Erin made which still haunts her. Erin does not manage her guilt. She drowns it in alcohol. She has no relationship with her teenage daughter Shelby ( Jade Pettyjohn ), and any "motherly" concern she shows about Shelby dating a much older man is greeted with a mixture of scorn and rage. Early on, Erin shows up at a crime scene, such a hungover wreck her colleagues tell her to go home and sleep it off. But Erin knows that this dead body is a message to her from the past, from Silas ( Toby Kebbell ), the scary criminal heading up the gang she had infiltrated many years before. Nobody believes her when she describes the threat. She has burned every bridge. She sets out on her own to unweave the tangled web of money laundering, drug dealing, and bank robbing. In the process, she confronts her past. It's not a pretty sight.
Neither is Kidman, whose haggard appearance in "Destroyer"—compared often to Charlize Theron's transformation in " Monster "—got press long before the movie even opened. Look how "bad" Nicole Kidman looks in her next movie! Kidman's choice to go as radical as she does with her appearance makes "Destroyer"—a pretty slight film, really—weirdly top-heavy. It's all about how "bad" she looks. Kidman is one of the most gifted actresses working today. She takes risks, big risks. I treasure that about her. Even her "failures" are more interesting than most actresses' successes. She does a lot of interesting things with Erin, in particular with her voice, which rarely rises above a near-whisper. You have to lean in to even hear her. Kidman's intuition about the voice is spot on. This is a character with no excess energy, no resilience, nothing to call upon. But the problem is she doesn't just "look bad" in "Destroyer." She looks like a zombie staggering out of a mausoleum. It's distracting. Sandra Bullock played a similar type of character in "Murder By Numbers" (one of Bullock's best performances), and she managed to suggest the wreckage of the character's life, her inability to experience emotions, her buried trauma and self-destructive coping mechanisms, through her performance, not a makeup job.
Erin's solo attempt to solve the crime has a propulsive drive, especially since everyone—colleagues, her daughter, her ex ( Scoot McNairy )—has had it up to here with her surly behavior and nightly benders. She has no comfort zone, no safe space. Erin's solitary struggles in "Destroyer" have a different feel than, say, "Serpico" or " The French Connection ," where the renegade cops breeze through the waves of suspicion almost untouched by all of it, certain in their righteous cause, almost charming in their amorality. But Erin is not seen as charming at all. How much of that is because she's a woman, written off as "too emotional" anyway? When she lumbers across the richly-manicured yard of a filthy defense attorney ( Bradley Whitford ), to confront him about his role in the crime, she looks both ferocious and vulnerable. She has no backup, literally and figuratively.
There are a couple of good sequences, in particular a bank robbery where Kusama shows a real gift for pacing and action, for careful placement of multiple characters (you always know where everyone is, even during the chaotic shootout). The sequence has a real electric charge, down to Kidman's authoritative flashing of her badge at the two cops showing up at the scene. The dreamlike sequences, where the action slows almost to a standstill, are beautiful and sad, drawing you in to her loneliness and despair (more than a dramatic makeup job can do). The final shots are stunning, although slightly overwrought. Like Kidman's transformation, it's a little "too much" for what is a fairly standard crime thriller.
Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .
Marya e. gates.
Matt zoller seitz.
After the Bite
Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell
Tatiana Maslany as Petra
Sebastian Stan as Chris
Bradley Whitford as DiFranco
Toby Kebbell as Silas
Scoot McNairy as Ethan
Toby Huss as Gil Lawson
- Karyn Kusama
- Matt Manfredi
- Julie Kirkwood
- Plummy Tucker
- Theodore Shapiro
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‘destroyer’: film review | telluride 2018.
Nicole Kidman plays a damaged Los Angeles cop tracking down an old nemesis in Karyn Kusama's pitch-black crime drama.
By Todd McCarthy
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The spectre and greatness of Michael Mann’s Heat hangs heavily over Karyn Kusama’s grandiose L.A. crime drama Destroyer . It’s a portentous and pretentious work that seeks to bore down in an almost cosmic way on the corrosive and corrupting nature of the battle between good and evil. It also presents Nicole Kidman with a challenging role that takes her to a variety of extreme places, both physical and mental. As ambitious and sometimes unsettling as it is, the film, after crossing back and forth over the line many times, ultimately feels affected in its aspirations toward making some profound statement about self-abasement and sacrifice, making one feel like rejecting the whole thing despite some striking individual moments.
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The first thing you see throws you; it’s the sight of Nicole Kidman looking like a spent derelict, a burned-out case, with parched skin and blank eyes, as if she has looked so intently into the depths of hell that hell has now enveloped her. Just to look at her is enough to make you feel a bit ill, and her hoarse monotone morphs into a dull whisper. But she’s somehow still functioning as a cop when she joins, uninvited, a couple of other LAPD officers in checking out a dead body and she notices two disturbing things — three red-circle welts on the back of his neck, and paper money that looks tainted with blood, which serves to tip her off that her former criminal nemesis, Silas, is back.
The Bottom Line Nicole Kidman dives in the deep end of a troublesome crime drama.
The hovering ominousness, tough talk and sense of ever-present threat rumbling around in Theodore Shapiro’s score remind viewers at once of Mann’s towering 1995 crime classic, to the extent that you can’t get the comparison out of your mind, which is not a good thing for the imitator. But screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi ( crazy/beautiful, Kusama’s Aeon Flux, R.I.P.D., Ride Along ) set things on a two-tier track that proves confusing at times but serves to clarify the perilous, self-destructive journey of Kidman’s LAPD detective Erin Bell.
Flipping back in time reveals a still tough but better looking and more together Erin, who’s at times paired with attractive young officer Chris (Sebastian Stan), and in a nasty scene she disgustingly pleasures a dying low-life criminal in exchange for information on Silas’ whereabouts. Another unpleasant interlude involves Erin’s tarty 16-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s become the plaything of another low-life and with whom Erin is simply unable to communicate.
Still, she sticks with her undercover existence and finds herself getting ever closer to her prey at various junctures: when she is received at the seaside mansion of a big criminal lawyer (Bradley Whitford, very effective in one of his most unexpected and uncharacteristic roles) and later when she joins in a brutal bank robbery that’s sort of a junior-league version of the one in Heat. Her participation partially disrupts the assault, but results in her nailing Silas’ female partner, Petra (Tatiana Maslany). It’s an effective action scene, if not on the virtuoso level of Heat.
There is virtually no one with whom Erin could be said to have a successful relationship. She almost always has to use money to get someone to do something she wants done, for example, getting her ex to move away and take their daughter with him. Most of her exchanges with people on any level are unpleasant, and she does not ever evince what could be called a lighter side or a sense of humor. She is not admirable and is not someone you’d want to know, or even meet, in real life.
In film terms, however, you still have to root for her in a certain way because those she has to deal with are far more vile than she is; her cesspool is the world most of us manage to avoid.
For a while, the spectacle of watching Erin navigate the toxic atmosphere that clouds her beat holds a certain low-down appeal. But we know from the beginning that it has eaten at and gotten the better of her, to the point where her experiences have degraded her so completely that, unlike her nemesis Silas, she can’t possibly come back.
Finally, then, so deeply are they into the murk of their own making that both Erin and the film come to seem irretrievable. Aided in the effort by composer Theodore Shapiro, Kusama seems to want to leave her story in some sort of existential trauma ward, a place of detention you can never truly leave. For a genre effort like this, the grandiose approach feel pretentious, something to avoid unless you truly do have chops that Mann and very few others have exhibited in ambitious genre works.
Still, it must be said that Kidman is terribly game, keen to look awful and go places she, and most others, have rarely gone before. Hers is a bold performance in a sometimes potent but troublesome film, one that does have a pretty grand opinion of its own importance.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Release: December 25 (Annapurna)
Production: Annapurna, Family Style, 30 West
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn
Director: Karyn Kusama
Screenwriters: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Producers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Fred Berger
Executive producers: Micah Green, Nik Bower, Nathan Kelly, Thornton Schumacher
Director of photography: Julie Kirkwood
Production designer: Kay Lee
Costume designer: Audrey Fisher
Editor: Plummy Tucker
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Casting: Mark Bennett
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‘Destroyer’ Review: A Very Good Nicole Kidman Plays a Very Bad Woman
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By Manohla Dargis
- Dec. 24, 2018
Ho, ho, ho — nothing says the holidays like a beautifully ugly Nicole Kidman taking care of business with a submachine gun. But if you’re looking for counterprogramming, something to cut the “Mary Poppins” treacle , consider “Destroyer,” in which Kidman plays a very bad cop. Wearing a crust of disfiguring makeup and mousy hair that looks as if it has crawled out of a dumpster to take up residence on her head, Kidman is almost unrecognizable. The transformation is startling, and it forces you to scan her face and look, really look, at a woman you might otherwise turn away from.
When Erin Bell, the boozing detective and title character, first flutters her eyes open in “Destroyer,” she seems to have awakened from a 10-year bender. But she is nowhere near ready to quit drinking, instead surrendering to the oblivion it brings. With angry red lines spider-webbing the whites of her eyes, Bell seems most at home on a barstool or passed out in her car or on the floor of her decrepit, loveless house. A veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, she appears beyond the redemption that she slowly pursues in a movie that, bracingly, doesn’t ask you to like her, just to follow her lead.
The director Karyn Kusama makes that easy to do with a snaky, propulsive story that takes Bell across Los Angeles and routinely drops her back into her troubled past. The through line is provided by a murdered man found facedown on an embankment, a corpse-as-clue (and red herring). There are a couple of other detectives already at the scene and working the case; they groan when Bell approaches, eyeballs rolling. But for some reason Bell crashes the party. By the time she is shuffle-staggering into her precinct, earning more derisive looks and comments, her pariah bona fides are secure.
[ Read our reviews of other new movies. ]
Little of what Bell does next makes her more attractive or pleasant or remotely relatable, which is a relief. When female stars take on physically transformative roles that are also aggressively unlikable, it’s sometimes called brave (Charlize Theron in “Monster”); when male stars do the same, it’s called acting ( Christian Bale in “Vice” ). Kidman has played with her looks before, most conspicuously with the fake honker she wore as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.” The makeup she wears as Bell at her most dissolute and beaten-down isn’t much more realistic. But its artificiality works because it looks like a disguise, like a rubber mask she put on long ago and eventually grew into.
That mask is dropped when the story flashes back to the past, when Bell was in her 20s and working undercover for the F.B.I. (Kidman’s reverse aging is persuasive and unshowy.) Along with another cop, Chris (Sebastian Stan), Bell joins one of those creepy drug gangs that infest the Southern California hinterlands (or at least movies about the same), the kind with chain-link fences, desperately barking dogs and junkyard detritus. Inside, as the characters and the camera creep through the eerie, diffused light, Kusama establishes an unsettling milieu that a sly-looking Bell eases into as if born to it.
Working with a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Kusama navigates the past and present confidently. The three also collaborated on the claustrophobic thriller “ The Invitation .” “Destroyer” gives Kusama more to do, including explore Los Angeles, which she does with an appreciable lack of glamorizing. The most self-conscious beauty shot is dropped in a nighttime chase that takes Bell and her prey through scrubby greenery that’s framed by the jewel-like downtown skyline. The chase nicely distills the city’s contrasts (and nods at Michael Mann), reaching its apogee with an image of Dodger Stadium that is as lit up as the spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
As it switches between time frames, the story peels away Bell’s past in flashbacks while it teasingly reveals the mystery of her present. As history catches up with her, she checks in with her ex (Scoot McNairy) and has stern talks with her teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), who has taken up with a sleazoid (Beau Knapp). Someone here must have liked the show “ Halt and Catch Fire ,” because McNairy’s co-star Toby Huss is here, too. The very good cast also includes a fantastic Tatiana Maslany as a nightmare personified and Bradley Whitford, who’s become a go-to duplicitous white guy. This one has a mansion with an ocean view and a belittling attitude that ends with Bell in one of her knockdown brawls.
Kidman handles herself convincingly in these fights, despite her slender frame. The black leather jacket the older Bell wears gives the actress some physical heft, as does a ponderous, borderline leaden walk. At times, her steps seem purely autonomic, suggesting both extreme exhaustion and freakish resolve, as if Bell were willing herself upright. Like a lot of movie detectives, she takes a pummeling while investigating. The brutalizing here feels startling, though, not only because of the performer — who elsewhere can seem ethereal — but also because it’s unusual to see a female character who isn’t in a horror flick endure this degree of punishment.
Kusama, whose first movie, “Girlfight,” was about a female boxer, is unsparing toward Bell. There’s warmth and feeling here, particularly in the younger Bell’s flashbacks with Chris, and some sentimentality, too. For the most part, though, Kusama asks you to take Bell on her own terms, which includes seeing a character who in her older years transcends either-or masculine-feminine dualism. Bell’s identity isn’t fixed to one gender: She’s both the brawling, boozing detective and the tough-talking, naggingly concerned mother. That she’s also a better detective than a mother makes her somewhat of an outlier, at least in American movies.
If Bell were a man and father, and played by, say, Denzel Washington, this wouldn’t be a big ask. And yet part of what’s pleasurable about “Destroyer” is that Kusama doesn’t try to turn the movie into a finger-wagging lesson about gender. Instead, she embraces genre and sprinkles in her influences: A Dodger game on Bell’s car radio registers as a reference to Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” about a very different fall and redemption. Kusama is still figuring out how to balance form and pulp, but she has a singular unapologetic idea about what women can and cannot do onscreen, one she lets rip with verve and her superbly unbound star.
Destroyer Rated R for intense physical and gun violence. Running time: 2 hours.
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Destroyer review – Nicole Kidman's cop on the skids is a raw, riveting revelation
In a smart and utterly absorbing performance, Kidman transforms her appearance to play an LA detective brutalised by her work undercover
D irector Karyn Kusama kickstarted her career in 2000 with the fierce Girlfight ; she gives us a sense-memory of that picture with this bruisingly excellent LA crime thriller, written for the screen by Phil Kay with Matt Manfredi.
The LA they imagine has a bleak, scorched, arid look in which the sunlight is always harsh, like that seen by a daytime drinker emerging from a bar, or by the same drinker waking up in his car the next morning. Production designer Kay Lee and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood create the colours and textures of this hostile world, but its overall mood is down to its star, Nicole Kidman , cast against type as Erin Bell. Erin is an LAPD detective who was brutalised and has become prematurely haggard after her experiences 16 years before, as an undercover cop covertly embedded in a violent and ruthless robbery crew. Its leader, Silas ( Toby Kebbell ), is still at large after the crew’s final spectacular failed job – a bloody nightmare that led to Erin’s present state, and is revealed in progressive flashbacks.
Erin is a shambling wreck, whose appearance shocks and embarrasses her colleagues, and still deeply upsets her estranged partner Ethan (Scoot McNairy), with whom her troubled teen daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) now lives. But, like a zombie after a taste of fresh flesh, Erin is reanimated when she barges in on some other cop’s case involving a corpse bearing a certain gang tattoo on the neck: the same one Erin once had to get to convince the bad guys she was one of them. Silas is evidently back, and Erin is convinced that she can bring him in, or bring him down, and in so doing lay to rest her own toxic guilty memories.
Opinions may conceivably divide over Kidman’s appearance and style in this film. For some, given her signature elegance in other movies, this may look like Trianon casting: a star slumming it and uglying-up in search of awards prestige. I have to say I find Kidman’s performance superb: smart, committed, utterly absorbing. There is a horribly compelling contrast between Erin’s present state and her fresh-faced appearance in flashback. Kidman brings something particularly disquieting to the role, turning into a bleached, gaunt mask with eye sockets raw and red, possibly from long-dried tears. Kusama creates a tremendous coup when Erin doggedly tracks down and effectively imprisons Silas’s abused girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) and we see how Petra’s face has become ravaged and coarsened in exactly the same way.
So how exactly did Erin come to look like that? She’s a drinker, and could well have been using drugs, but it’s more a species of delayed shock, a physiological reaction to the terrible things that she saw, and caused, while undercover with her fellow officer, Chris (Sebastian Stan).
Erin is on a mission, ranging all over the city in an agonised archaeology of pain, digging up various surviving crew members. There are moments of banality, horror and bizarre black comedy. One of the people she confronts is the gang’s high-class fence DiFranco, in his chi-chi architectural home, played by Bradley Whitford in creepily louche athleisure wear. He reminded me a little of Bernie, the character Albert Brooks played in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – which may be an influence here. DiFranco sneeringly tells her: “You know what successful people do, Detective Bell? They get over things.” That is true, up to a point, and I like to think the line is also a reference to Nietzsche’s maxim: “The strong man forgets what he cannot master.” But not getting over stuff is the narrative drive for the whole film.
Destroyer reverses the gender polarity and ethos of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant : with Ferrara, the cop is the abuser and with Kusama the cop is the abused, but both are cops who have descended into hell and whose compulsive, addictive behaviour may be an effort to escape it – or to enter further into hell in an attempt to cauterise the pain.
Erin certainly feels that she is in an inferno, and everything she does may not really be a search for the exit, but a kind of coming-to-terms, particularly when it comes to finding some connection with her daughter. Kidman has a very interesting scene when the angry Shelby asks if Erin can remember once taking her on a chaotic camping trip. It is a memory that Kusama converts into a kind of degraded epiphany for Erin. Not redemption, but closure of a sort.
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The twists and turns in this mystery-thriller would be enough for us to recommend it. Splendid performances by Kidman and Stan seal the deal.
Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/4 | Mar 20, 2022
Its not only an amazingly crafted story-line. Its the way Kusama shows Erin Bells transformation. Destroyer is undoubtedly one of the best pictures that talk about morality and its lack, revenge, and mental state of ones mind.
Full Review | Original Score: A- | Feb 13, 2022
Episode 28: Piercing / Monsters and Men / Thunder Road / Destroyer
Full Review | Original Score: 82/100 | Sep 9, 2021
A sun-scorched, store damaged, furious street rant on the ways we destroy others, but more on the ways we let ourselves be destroyed.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Jul 30, 2021
On paper, Destroyer is your standard cop drama, but it's elevated by a superb performance by Kidman and storytelling that remains focused on the human cost of police work instead of any particular case.
Full Review | Mar 29, 2021
Kusama manages the neat trick of keeping her storytelling clear enough to understand, but tricky enough to hold off on some crucial information.
Full Review | Original Score: B+ | Feb 4, 2021
Destroyer should have been satisfyingly better than what we got. It deserved more based on Kusama's previous record of Jennifer's Body and The Invitation. Kidman keeps the interest levels high enough, but it's not sufficient to save it in a mix-bag affair
Full Review | Original Score: 2/5 | Aug 27, 2020
The breadcrumbs never really feel like they're adding up to anything and the mystery, such as there is one, is largely unengaging.
Full Review | Original Score: 2/5 | Aug 16, 2020
Nicole Kidman may well be the first performer to deserve Oscars for both Best Actress and Best Supporting actress - for the same role in the same movie.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Jul 27, 2020
Is it hollow? Maybe a little. Uneven? Sure. But it's also hypnotic, and it's ultimately worth the wait.
Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Jul 26, 2020
It suffers from the conventions of cop films. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 6/10 | Jul 24, 2020
The best crime films find the current of humanity that runs beneath the surface of the action and the gritty atmosphere, and that's where Destroyer delivers.
Full Review | Jul 24, 2020
Nicole Kidman goes through the procedural motions in a bad wig. Gritty, well executed, but nothing else there.
Full Review | Feb 6, 2020
Los Angeles - especially its crumbling eastern sprawl - serves as an evocative backdrop, with cinematographer Julie Kirkwood capturing its shades of pink and beige as the sun hits the sand and concrete.
Full Review | Sep 25, 2019
It sounds like a rote rote cop [movie], but the way that Karyn Kusama puts a spin on it: [Destroyer] is really about a woman who cannot deal with her own mistakes... I thought that this film had a real heaviness to it.
Full Review | Sep 13, 2019
A largely thrilling endeavor that'll play well in television reruns, but may never find a stronger audience than that.
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Jul 17, 2019
Interesting, intriguing and different, Destroyer has mystery, action and incredible acting.
Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Jul 3, 2019
"You look terrible," her ex-boss tactlessly informs LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman). He's not wrong.
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Jun 23, 2019
It is a conventional thriller, that progressively provides nuances of intense existential drama due to the chameleonic interpretation of Nicole Kidman in the role of Erin Bell. [Full Review in Spanish]
Full Review | Jun 18, 2019
When you look outside Kidman's performance, what's left is a semi-interesting story made stale by a hackneyed screenplay.
Full Review | Jun 17, 2019