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The troubled detective haunted by a past mistake is hardly a new concept. We’ve seen it time and again in movies, television, and books. It’s pretty much a staple of noir at this point. Going into Destroyer, I was hoping that a director like Karyn Kusama would bring some sort of twist or element that could make the idea feel fresh again. Whilst I didn’t find that, there is still a great deal of style to this familiar substance.
Years previously Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated a gang run by Silas (Toby Kebbell) who were moving into bank robberies. Something went wrong, and Silas got away. Now Bell has reasons to believe he is back and calls on some old “friends” to help her track him down.
First off, this movie is dirty. It exists in a grimy, colour-drained, uncaring, corrupt, and uncompromising world of Neo Noir and it is reflected in our protagonist. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of the increasingly more physically and emotionally broken detective Bell is unlike anything we’ve seen her play before and it is fascinating to watch. Bell is a mess, in every possible sense, hurtling forward in a Captain Ahab-type self-destructive determination even after receiving some harsh beatings that would send anyone else to the hospital. There is also the addition of Bell’s relationship with her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyyjohn), from whose life she has been fairly absent but one that leaves Bell with a desperate and aggressive need to keep her daughter from making damaging mistakes she did.
She is a very closed character verbally, but we get a lot of clues through her actions. Is it revenge or maybe redemption that fuels Erin’s journey? We might have some idea by the end but can never be entirely sure. Erin Bell is such an interesting central character, it’s a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t match her. The problem lies in the familiarity of it. Apart from some nice structural choices just about every story turn you can comfortably see coming a mile off, and while Tatiana Maslany and an unrecognisable Bradley Whitford are great the rest of the characters besides Bell are pretty forgettable.
The bottom line is that Destroyer is fine, but that’s it. It’s well made from a technical standpoint and Nicole Kidman’s performance is worth watching, but it’s frustrating that the end product is so by-the-numbers is so disappointing when Kusama is a director that we’ve come to expect more interesting things from.