We first meet Erin Bell, the central character in Karyn Kusama’s new film Destroyer, with her eyes open and her decaying face bathed in bright light. We know instantly this is a story about a woman facing death, and we want to know why. That the film ends exactly as it begins is the sort of narrative choice that feels innovative—that is, until you really consider the implications. We know that the film is about Bell (Nicole Kidman), a hardened female detective trying to solve a murder, but what could be a haunting and compelling family drama is padded out with formulaic thriller elements, a grand miscalculation that undermines the genuine emotion that’s the most compelling aspect of the film.
Bell is an unconventional monster, a Frankenstein of sorrow, a patchwork of self-imposed deterioration. Twenty years after her role in an undercover operation led to the murder of a loved one, Bell has lived with little regard for her own health or safety. She’s a ruthless cop, a bad partner, and a neglectful mother. Her ex-husband, Ethan (Scoot McNairy), is heartbroken, and her teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), has taken to skipping school and “dating” an adult man (Beau Knapp). Bell’s belief that she has broken her life beyond repair leads her on a single-minded quest to take down a criminal from her past.
Bell is the kind of tragic Hollywood cop most often portrayed by men: a hard-boiled sleuth haunted by past sins, running on no sleep, and drinking herself into an early grave. She’s the sort of female character who seems to flourish only on the small screen. True Detective’s Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) are noteworthy examples. It’s difficult to pinpoint why there aren’t more roles like theirs in movies: Yes, there are more female writers in TV writer’s rooms than there are in big-budget Hollywood scripts, but both True Detective and Law & Order: SVU are largely written and directed by men. Perhaps the film industry believes that female detective stories aren’t “big” enough for cinema. So Destroyer definitely deserves credit for putting a character like Bell front and center, but its narrative doesn’t feel worthy of its fascinating main character.
Much like Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., Destroyer gives us a hero with a death wish. The story, however, is unable to marry Bell’s appetite for self-destruction with the troubled love and motherhood that intertwine and drive her actions. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the writing team behind The Invitation, the Ride Along films, and Kusama’s 2005 film Æon Flux, seem afraid to go beyond trash-talking and violence to tackle what’s actually haunting Bell. There’s little reason for the character to be a mystery to the audience, but the script insists on keeping her an enigma until the film’s superior third act. Subsequently, Destroyer’s ending feels more like a beginning, leaving us hungry for the story we missed out on.
There’s also the matter of how Bell’s gritty, dangerous appearance is meant to do the film’s heavy narrative lifting. Rather than letting Kidman’s performance convey her toughness and sorrow, Destroyer shortcuts the character with the tried-and-true de-beautifying technique that Hollywood has celebrated in award-winning performances like Charlize Theron’s in Monster and Halle Berry’s in Monster’s Ball—and in Kidman’s own portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours. While I don’t believe that female characters have to be appealing, I do think it’s possible to portray a woman’s darkness without hiding her under layers of obvious prosthetics and face-changing makeup. It’s also worth noting that Bell’s male counterparts—such as the titular Bad Lieutenant or To Live or Die in L.A.’s Richard Chance—are afforded the privilege of being simultaneously tough and physically attractive. The uglying up of Kidman is just one symptom of a larger problem: Destroyer seems afraid to delve into any themes that could be read as feminine.
These narrative flaws are frustrating because there’s so much to love about Kusama’s fourth film. Destroyer is shot and scored like a horror film, with evocative violence and a gifted cast—Michael Mann with a grimy top layer of Rob Zombie. Bell lumbers through the world like Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers—unstoppable, unkillable, and utterly relentless. Her voice is a low, raspy rumble. And there’s a hint of Atomic Blonde in that Kidman’s physical performance, like Charlize Theron’s, is of a higher caliber than the script she’s beholden to. Though she goes all in on the film’s dramatic potential, she’s at the mercy of a formula that favors heavily symbolic style over substance.
Ideally, Destroyer would meld the best parts of Kusama’s most successful genre efforts: the newly-vindicated Jennifer’s Body and the critical darling The Invitation. Jennifer’s Body featured a female vigilante exacting revenge on men who underestimate and objectify her. And Kusama achieved this without stripping Jennifer (Megan Fox) of her sexuality and balancing screenwriter Diablo Cody’s often clumsy dialogue with a gothic and fun cinematic style that heavily relies on animated facial expressions. It’s easy to imagine how Destroyer could have wedded Jennifer’s thoughtful understanding of women with the narrative sparseness, slow-burn thrills, and pulse-pounding tension of The Invitation. But unfortunately, Destroyer is much less daring.
The workmanlike plot is constantly at odds with the film’s emotional core, and we’re bombarded with forgettable criminals when the most interesting characters are offscreen, in anguish. There are times when Destroyer takes a swing at greatness. “You know what successful people do? They get over shit. Build things.” These words are spoken by Bradley Whitford’s smarmy, crooked lawyer character, and they stayed with me long after the credits rolled. Bell lets her past eat her alive without taking the time to fully understand it—so we can’t either. That is ultimately her, and the film’s, downfall.