I was pretty darn excited by Destroyer just prior to watching Destroyer. The fact of a female-led, female-directed crime film with such noir grit would’ve been enticing enough. That female lead, of course, is Nicole Kidman, which always helps in the Excitement category. But frankly director Karyn Kusama was even more of a draw, coming off her last effort The Invitation. While not altogether a classic, Invitation stuck in the mind for its slow-burn tension and creepy performances. It was almost a suburban spin on a haunted house tale, Ice Storm meets Amityville Horror, accomplished with confidence by Kusama on a comparatively small budget of $1 million. Destroyer upped the ante, left the suburban mansion for the L.A. streets, but the fact that it was still an original thriller was mighty exciting.
And I was even pretty darn excited by Destroyer just after watching Destroyer, because the ending was a deft twist with a songlike quality only hinted at elsewhere in the film. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Destroyer while I was actually watching Destroyer. As an upstanding member of the critical community, of course, I must admit, reader, that in entering the screening for Destroyer I simultaneously expunged every bias while still expecting, honestly, based on advertising, to be destroyed.
On the one hand, there’s an obvious realism at play that I’d argue the film needs to be effective. Kidman plays Erin Bell, a hard-drinking, tougher-than-nails cop who finds herself pulled back into a case she worked undercover years ago. So, not the sort of premise that suggests a metafictional self-awareness of any sort. Kusama’s direction is fitting, raw, direct. It’s also fitting that Destroyer falls where it does in her filmography, which she began with a similarly handcrafted Girlfight before witnessing firsthand the machinations of Hollywood studios in the dismantling or her big-budget effort Æon Flux. Kusama has sort of been asserting herself quietly against the studio system since then, and with Destroyer she definitely seems to be saying fuck you.
On the other hand, somebody — Kusama, Kidman, a cinematic spirit conjured accidentally within Destroyer — seems to also be saying suspension of disbelief be damned. That aforementioned “obvious realism” is really, really hard to reconcile with Kidman’s makeup, which sounds like a trivial qualm in the grand scheme of things. But it’s a one-two-three punch: the most recognizable and ever-youthful actress in the world, caked in makeup, filmed almost exclusively in extreme close-up. You can’t not find yourself thinking about this, so the punch becomes fatal to the supposedly-vital suspension of disbelief.
It’s indicative of the primary discordance in Destroyer: is this film striving for utter realism after all, or is there in fact some level of genre awareness we’re supposed to recognize? If Destroyer starred a dude in the main role, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation; the alpha-male lone-wolf vendetta-cop trope is a dime a dozen, the Dirty Harry cliché, and for that matter it’s currently airing on HBO as True Detective. Destroyer is special not only because it follows a female character, but because that character has a very female-centric arc that simultaneously has nothing to do with her detective work and yet feels perfect for the genre. In crime movies, when motherhood ties into a revenge story, the child is usually held hostage — literally by the villain, or figuratively by “the job” itself. But the absentee-parent trope here for once has little to do with Erin’s choice of profession. She’s the one who’s been taken hostage by motherhood, utterly unfit for it, and in that respect Destroyer finds genuinely fresh footing in one of the most overdone genres in film history.
That prospect — not just Dirty Harriet for the sake of a gender-swap, but a character that would actually truly bust the Dirty Harry cliché — is what excited me before watching the film. But the same genre clichés abound throughout Destroyer, in the overly-“badass” dialogue, in the one-last-case plot, in the psychotic and elusive villain, in Erin’s “authority problem” persona. At times it comes off as a young adult crack at a procedural thriller. Erin shares a genuine moment with her lover and then, as he’s walking away, yells “nice ass” because it’s gritty. It’s necessary for the plot that the members of the criminal gang have tattoos that are easily identifiable, but of course that’s as realistic as having I AM IN A GANG tattooed on your forehead. And heck, the heist crew in Baby Driver is more intimidating than this one.
These elements are very explicitly Things That You Find in a Gritty Crime Drama. Like Kidman’s makeup, they pulled me right out of Destroyer and forced me away from the heart of it. Until the slightly twisty final minutes, I was watching Destroyer rather than fully experiencing it. The gains made in upending gender stereotypes here are admirable, and probably justify a recommendation of the film in their own right. But the genre stereotypes are still here, and it’s disappointing that Destroyer plays right into them.