Destroyer is the most joyless film I’ve seen in a long time. That’s not a bad thing – the misery in Destroyer drives the present and is the lens through which we view the past, making it nearly as much of a central character as Nicole Kidman’s haunted cop.
Bouncing between timelines, Destroyer tells the story of Erin Bell (Kidman), a rogue police detective who finds herself pulled back into a case she worked undercover a decade and a half before. She relentlessly hunts down players from the past and present in her search for Silas (Toby Kebbell), the leader of the criminal gang in which she was placed. At the same time, Erin is half-heartedly parenting a teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) who has little attachment to Erin and even less interest in her.
The heavy lifting in Destroyer is done by Kidman as the central antihero. To say Erin is unlikeable would be generous: she’s obsessed with the cold case that changed her life, and couldn’t care less what impact her single-minded pursuit has on anyone else. That we have a chance to see Erin in the past and understand what she was like in a seemingly more innocent time demonstrates Kidman’s skill in making her character so dynamic. The film also uses make-up to show how the last 17 years have aged and wrecked Erin. That message grows increasingly important through the film, and the make-up is effective in that she certainly does look different, but the jarring physical appearance of present-day Erin can also be distracting. The determination and devastation she feels – as well as the fury and pain from which it comes – is successfully conveyed by Kidman.
Kidman also has to do a great deal of the work in solitude and silence. She has a number of moments that I started to call “acting while sitting quietly” scenes. She sits silently in her car, on a porch, or behind the wheel of a van with her face or body as her only tool to convey the different emotions in those brief scenes. Some of that limitation is the work of director Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body), who clearly – and rightfully – trusts Kidman enough to constrain her. Kusama also trusts her audience and doesn’t spoon-feed this complicated story to us. In fact, many of the shots in Destroyer are so tightly framed that we can’t see a full picture of what’s happening. That’s both consistent with the way this narrative unfolds on the whole, and it’s also a way to focus on the reactions we see on the faces of the characters in the scene, which seems to be Kusama’s priority.
Relying on those reactions wouldn’t be nearly as effective if this weren’t such a talented cast. In addition to Kidman, Zach Villa and Tatiana Maslany turn in standout supporting performances. I also wouldn’t be sorry to see Kebbell get some recognition as well. The pay-off of this film relies on all of these actors conveying exactly the right emotion and information in both the past and present, and they’re all more than up to the challenge.
Destroyer is a bleak film filled with miserable people. It’s also immensely satisfying in the way it doles out justice. In the end, who needs the joy or merriment when you can enjoy a smart, immersive story full of violent and righteous retribution?