From the opening shots of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, Los Angeles seeps through the screen and sears itself into you. Destroyer immediately has a feel for LA, not only as a location but as a cinematic reference point. It understands the endless rows and blocks on end of convenience stores, or the different intimidating neighborhoods, which act as our connection to the LA we know. Kusama seems to get the troupes that Destroyer moves through and accepts, but she celebrates those and adds to them. This is done by Destroyer being one of the bleakest films of 2018. It eventually got to me, breaking down my complaints, and genuinely affecting me emotionally.
Nicole Kidman & Sebastian Stan in Destroyer, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Destroyer introduces itself starkly. The opening shot of Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman, doing a lot) looks like she’s been destroyed by her surroundings. The ghastly opening shot of Kidman opening her eyes in her car is haunting. We soon follow Bell, an older LAPD detective, as she realizes the most pinnacle case of her life has reopened. She traces her way back through old connections and ties to attempt to bring down a leader of the gang she used to be undercover with. This all seems pretty cut and dry, as expected for a gritty LA cop neo-noir, but the film has other plans for the material given.
Kusama delivers a pretty standard story with an unflinching griminess. Colors and tones of films like Memento, or Chinatown inform the visual tone here, but due to the excellent work of cinematographer Julia Kirkwood, every shot looks like it was cut to the bone. The dry lighting and piercingly digital look make Destroyer gripping, along with intentionally shallow and hollow. It helps to underline the fact that Bell is a hollow shell of a person. She’s permanently defined by that old case, which may sound standard, but Kusama and the rest make it heartbreaking.
Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Oh, and Kidman is very good here. I’ve talked a bit about her character, but it really is Nicole’s show. Under a metric ton of makeup (excellently done by Cary Ayers), Nicole Kidman grunts, limps, and forces her way to the next scene. She’s the beating heart under a charred and ripped skin of a film. She broods through every scene, wearing a trust leather jacket and vacant eyes that could cut through someone. At first, her performances threatens to be an A-C-T-I-N-G performance, one with big gestures and a desperate want for an Oscar, but Kidman sinks her teeth into it, thrashing into every scene with a groan and a limp.