The moment you lay eyes on the raw, burning eyes of detective Erin Bell, played incredibly by Nicole Kidman, Destroyer immediately takes hold. Playing like a long lost episode of True Detective, this savage crime thriller follows Bell as she attempts to track down people from a past undercover assignment in hopes of finally finding personal peace. Æon Flux director Karyn Kusama seems to occasionally forget the extraordinarily rare performance she's being given by Kidman in the lead role, and so the film's relatively straightforward story does have brief moments of hibernation. But even so, when Destroyer really gets going you immediately know you're in for something special.
We first come across Detective Bell as she staggers into a homicide crime scene, seemingly drunk or just utterly exhausted. Nicole Kidman looks about twenty years older than she actually is, with such rough skin that you could probably sharpen a knife with it. She examines the lone male corpse that lies facedown in an abandoned part of town, a place that criminals and probably homeless inhabitants of the city like to reside. With her decrepit state, she's quickly sent on her way and that's when Destroyer really gets into gear. The film often uses its squalid setting as an advantage, revealing the not-so-pretty parts of the city and how even the strongest of people can be eventually broken by it.
Karyn Kusama uses razor-sharp direction to flash back to Bell's troubled past, which is where we meet her beloved Chris (Sebastian Stan). The two hardened agents are undercover in a lowly yet inseparable group of criminals, led by Toby Kebbell's delightfully creepy Silas. He, like any good criminal leader should, runs the group by fear. One night Silas threatens a member of the gang with a gun unless they play a quick round of Russian roulette with themselves, just for kicks and giggles. Its lovable traits like that cause Bell to go on the hunt for Silas's ghostly presence, especially when we come to learn of the past bank robbery gone wrong that involved both Erin and Chris. The crux of the film is Erin's journey back through the grimy underworld of her past, as she revisits many familiar faces who still remain lost in the winless fight against their ongoing criminal lifestyles.
Destroyer plays best when Bell is front and center. There are a number of tender flashbacks that showcase Bell's and Chris's devoted love life. We also get glimpses as to what Bell used to look like, a cute rebellious girl who only wanted to be with the one she loved. But we quickly remember that life is now long gone whenever we come back to behold the present day Bell who looks so close to death you can almost smell it. It's a tragic story, and Bell is by no means a lovable character. However Bell's dramatic trek through the past as well as her current troubles of reconnecting with her child - a sixteen year-old girl who likes to act twenty-five - never ceases to surprise you. In a strange way, whether or not Kusama intended this, your own personal investment in the story often wanes in and out just as Bell's does. As she starts to get frustrated and further away from her goal, both the character and yourself feel that passion start to fade.
While you could easily fit Destroyer into the indie crime genre, there's still plenty to love here. There are a number of sequences, including a nail-biting shootout in a bank, sprinkled throughout the film that never fails to bring things back into focus. It's a tragic story of love, regret and guilt as seen through a woman forever damaged by past choices. There is a finely-spun theme here, however, of a woman stopping at nothing to topple the malicious, abusive men of her past who tend to think of themselves as untouchable. And even though this idea could have been more thoroughly explored, today's troubled current climate will hopefully help keep Destroyer from falling into the bottomless bit of other thrillers that share its look but none of the bite. My Rating: 4.5/5. Destroyer comes from Annapurna Pictures.