Featuring an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman, this gritty Los Angeles noir is both a scorching character study and a gripping action movie.
March 21, 2019
Directed towards Jack Nicholson's hard-boiled Los Angeles private eye, "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" is one of cinema history's most iconic lines. But Chinatown could've been a little less specific with its famous quote and still conveyed the same sentiment (although "forget it Jake, it's LA" just doesn't have the same ring to it). Los Angeles may be America's city of angels, but it's also a destroyer of dreams. It's where starry-eyed hopefuls flock with their sights set on fame and fortune, where so few secure that wish, and where plenty of unpleasantness lurks beyond the glitz. It's also a place where rise-and-fall tales like La La Land and A Star Is Born can sit beside slacker noir flicks like Inherent Vice and Under the Silver Lake, neo-noir comedies such as The Nice Guys and grim noir dramas like Destroyer.
Indeed, noir, the stylised crime genre so often populated by detectives dredging through society's ills, seems particularly drawn to Los Angeles. Where else can gloss and grime reside in such close proximity, one shining and the other tarnishing? There's little that glistens in Destroyer, though. While set in a city almost perpetually bleached from above, this bleak thriller shares little of LA's stereotypically sunny appearance. Instead, the film dwells in the shadows and styles itself after its exhausted protagonist, as portrayed by a far-from-glamorous Nicole Kidman.
Proving increasingly chameleonic as her career progresses, the Australian actor plays detective Erin Bell — the usual noir cop with a chequered past; a flawed anti-hero desperate to correct past wrongs. Nearly two decades earlier, Bell went undercover with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) to try to sniff out a California gang. All this time later, she still can't shake the difficult gig or the failed bank robbery that brought it to an unhappy end. When ink-stained notes from the heist arrive in the mail, Bell attempts to hunt down the criminal crew's shifty leader Silas (Toby Kebbell). She has other worries, including a teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) who wants little to do with her, but she won't stop until she has put her old case to rest.
Bell could walk alongside any of noir's dogged investigators and hold her own. Kidman could do the same among any of the genre's best stars. Destroyer lives and breathes through its complicated protagonist and phenomenal lead performance, with each putting on a stunning show. Baked into both, and into every element of the movie, is the feeling of determination in the face of near-certain defeat. It's the same undying pluck amidst inevitable peril that made a line like "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" such an emblem of the genre. Noir's most compelling figures know that little is going to turn out well, but they also know that soldiering on anyway is the only option.
What an experience it is to see Bell do just that, and to witness Kidman bring her to life (as aided by the appropriate wigs and makeup). The Aussie talent's recent roles in Boy Erased, Aquaman, Big Little Lies and The Beguiled couldn't seem further away from her work here, and yet she couldn't seem more perfect for the part. While the film's title applies to many aspects of its story, Destroyer completely ravages the idea that these dark, hard-luck tales are the domain of men. It's easy to say that gender doesn't matter to a character like Bell, who couldn't be less feminine — but the way the world has worn this woman down, and the way she's worn herself down to cope and survive, never escapes notice.
With its incredible bank heist scenes — some of the most riveting since the original Point Break — Destroyer's versatility doesn't evade attention either. As directed by Karyn Kusama, it's a sunlit noir, a scorching character study, a subversion of typical gender roles and an impressive action movie. Working with her regular screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the filmmaker already has a diverse and notable record, including Girlfight, Jennifer's Body and The Invitation. With Destroyer, however, both the director and her star sear themselves into viewers' memories. Their film might reside in a world and genre that tells everyone to forget, wipe their minds and move on, but everything about this heavy-hitter lingers.
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