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Review: Destroyer

January 11, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Director Karyn Kusama’s latest film Destroyer opens with rogue LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) waking up in her car, which is parked under an overpass. She appears weary and beaten down – we will find out that she has succumbed to drinking as a way to quell her pain – and she stumbles onto an active murder scene that her colleagues are investigating.

A man lies dead in a pool of blood, with several notes of dye-stained bills floating around him, three distinctive gang markings tattooed on the back of his neck, and a ghost gun thrown beside his body. Bell claims to know who did it, and that she will be able to solve the case.

The film is told through a dual narrative. In present day, Bell starts investigating the reemergence of Silas (Toby Kebbell), the leader of a brutal gang of bank robbers in California. This leads her to reconnect with figures that she encountered during an undercover assignment almost two decades earlier, forcing her to finally confront the past trauma of a sting operation gone wrong that involved her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), which is shown in flashbacks.

Kusama manages to bring a strong enough sense of style to the action scenes here, including a pair of well staged bank robberies that serve as the high points of the film. But for the most part, Destroyer is a pretty standard and somewhat bland crooked cop drama, that takes a while to get where we pretty much already know it will end up. The script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi leans a little too hard into cliché and melodrama, bringing together a bunch of disparate elements, most of which we have seen before.

Bell’s alcoholism hardly feels like a new or particularly original trope, neither does the fact that she has an estranged teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) who has gotten caught up with an older boyfriend (Beau Knapp), who is at risk of dragging her into the same seedy underworld. The film strives to do something structurally unique through its convoluted mix of flashbacks and present day scenes, but I’ve watched it twice now, and I’m still not sure if the circular narrative quite adds up, let alone has the impact that the filmmakers intended it to have. It’s actually more frustrating than effective at certain points.

The film is anchored by a fine if somewhat overhyped performance from Kidman, who appears buried under prosthetics to make her face look haggard and worn. Kidman does have some showcase scenes here – including an extended dialogue sequence with Pettyjohn that comes near the end of the film and allows her to show a more vulnerable side – but she is stuck playing a one-note character who doesn’t really have much of a compelling arc, and the heavy makeup is distracting at times.

The film is not without its technical merits, and the strong ensemble cast ensures that there are several well acted scenes along the way, including an expectedly solid supporting turn from Tatiana Maslaney, who is underused as Silas’s girlfriend. But the moments of Destroyer that work play better in isolation than the film does as a whole, and the overall experience can be a bit frustrating and disappointing.

Destroyer is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto, and will be expanding to more cities across Canada on January 25th.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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