Karyn Kusama arrived onto the filmmaking scene in 2000 with her debut feature, the Michelle Rodriguez-starring ‘Girlfight’. Five years later, she took on the feature-film adaptation of Peter Chung’s cult MTV cartoon ‘Aeon Flux’, but the movie ended in disaster. The film had been ushered through production by Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing but during post-production Lansing left, which resulted in the film being recut and reworked, with significant changes from Kusama's original vision. Following this experience, Kusama said she would never again work on a film in which she doesn't have control of the final cut. The movie flopped.
She eventually landed the directing gig for the Diabo Cody-penned Megan Fox vehicle ‘Jennifer’s Body’. Despite its box office success, the film received mixed reviews from critics upon its release but has since become a cult favourite. In regards to the reappraisals of the film, Kusama credited its “distinctly female perspective,” stating she had intended to make a movie where young women could see themselves represented.
In an industry where male directors are often able to jump from a flop to a new blockbuster gig without issue, Kusama’s career took a different trajectory. She stepped away from directing entirely for a while but re-emerged in 2015 with the stylish, disturbing, and incredibly unnerving film ‘The Invitation’. It served to remind everyone of Kusama’s colossal talent, and she swiftly began working on TV shows like ‘Masters of Sex’, ‘Halt and Catch Fire’, ‘Casual’ and ‘The Man in The High Castle’.
Now Kusama is back with her fifth feature, the modern noir ‘Destroyer’, destined to be remembered as the film in which one of Hollywood’s most glamorous superstars, Nicole Kidman, demonstrated just how grizzled and unkempt she can be.
Kidman plays LAPD detective Erin Bell, a scarecrow-like, alcoholic wreck who tends to sleep either in a bar or in her car. Erin has papery, liver-spotted skin; cracked lips; triple layers of bags under her eyes; and what seems to a literal mop of greying hair sitting on her head. Whenever she trudges towards her colleagues, they swear under their breath and back away because she has become such a smelly, embarrassing liability.
Bell alienates her colleagues and beats up her contacts. She has ruined her relationship with her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy, ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, ‘Gone Girl’) and her teenaged daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn); her working relationship with her partner (Shamier Anderson) isn’t much better; and her barely competent police work seems to be motivated not by a thirst for justice or even revenge, but by half-crazed desperation.
The reason Erin is so troubled is that, almost two decades earlier, she went on an undercover mission that went catastrophically wrong. She and an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’) were assigned to infiltrate a gang of bank-robbing lowlifes who were under the control of a Bodhi from ‘Point Break’-like philosophical kingpin, Silas (Toby Kebbell, ‘Kong: Skull Island’, ‘War For The Planet Of The Apes’, ‘A Monster Calls’). He disappeared after she failed to bring him to justice, but one night Erin spots a tattoo on a murder victim’s neck which identifies him as one of Silas’s acolytes. Then a dye-stained dollar bill arrives in the mail...
Erin chases down each of the members of Silas’s high-desert gang, including rich and smarmy lawyer DiFranco (Bradley Whitford, ‘Get Out’) and her former friend and associate Petra (Tatiana Maslany, TV’s ‘Orphan Black), dispensing hand jobs and beatings along the way. Meanwhile, ‘Destroyer’ alternates between the current investigation and flashbacks to the ill-fated undercover job, where Kidman plays a fresh-faced rookie. There are wigs and prosthetic make-up (via the transformative, discolouring efforts of Oscar-winning make-up artist Bill Corso, ‘Foxcatcher’, ‘Blade Runner 2049’) aplenty in order to convince the audience of the passage of time that has weathered the cast.
Unlike the spooky midnight purgatory of ‘The Invitation’, which used the city’s rolling hills and luxurious houses for a creepy climax, here Kusama frames Los Angeles as a gnarled tangle of dusty side streets and low-lying ethnic enclaves that, even when it ventures into wealthier parts of the city, feels worlds away from Hollywood.
Via a tense score by Theodore Shapiro and bleak cinematography by Julie Kirkwood, Los Angeles is presented as a hellscape: a civilisation on the verge of being overrun by nature and obliterated by the searing sunshine. Unlike the spooky midnight purgatory of ‘The Invitation’, which used the city’s rolling hills and luxurious houses for it's creepy climax, here Kusama frames Los Angeles as a gnarled tangle of dusty side streets and low-lying ethnic enclaves that, even when it ventures into wealthier parts of the city, feels worlds away from Hollywood.
The screenplay, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, feels thin and under-plotted, although it keeps adding gut-wrenching twists at regular intervals. There is a sense that the characters could have been deeper. The relationship between the gang could have used fleshing out, the motivations of Silas are a mystery and key elements of Erin’s background are only hinted at tantalisingly towards the end of the film.
‘Destroyer’ isn’t too dissimilar from the indie neo-noirs that came out in the mid-1990s, like ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Deep Cover’ and ‘Heat’ (particularly during an explosive bank robbery scene). But it’s most similar to Lili Fini Zanuck’s ‘Rush’, which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric as two cops in the 1970s who go undercover on a case and soon find themselves sucked into the drug culture, compromising their assignment and their own moral axis.
The difference between Erin Bell in ‘Destroyer’ and Harvey Keitel in ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ (surely the pinnacle of “amoral cop seeking redemption” characters) is that Kusama and Kidman give Erin’s hard-bitten amorality an intriguing twist by making her, for all her violent tantrums, ineffective and eternally frustrated. She wants to be a rogue cop who plays by her own rules, but that can't happen because she’s being continually undermined by those around her. No one takes Erin or her pain seriously until the moment she starts pounding their faces into jelly.
Kidman’s physical transformation for the role is on the level of Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in ‘Monster’; her bloodshot eyes, skeletal frame, chapped lips, and papery skin betray not only decades of hard living, but a body whose soul has been deeply wounded. ‘Destroyer’ isn’t quite as radical as Lynne Ramsay’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’, but both films take action-movie archetypes (a cop, a soldier) and examines how the trauma of their jobs impact their physical and spiritual lives.
Kidman has always taken on challenging roles, and nearly always delivered an interesting performance. Throughout her career, those glamorous blockbuster roles have been the exception for her, not the norm. I've really enjoyed going back and watching some of the smaller films I missed at the time. Luckily, I caught ‘Destroyer’ at its Sydney premiere, because her performance elevates what could have been a standard “dirty cop” drama into something more unique.