Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Producer: Fred Berger, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, James Jordan, Toby Huss, Bradley Whitford, Sebastian Stan
A troubled detective sets out to finally take down the elusive criminal behind a fatal undercover operation that has haunted her for 17 years.
If Nic Pizzolatto had written “Destroyer” instead of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, it would have been an overlong eight hours instead of just an overlong two. Marquee names wigged and makeup’ed into assorted cops and robbers archetypes. Concurrent narratives playing out nonlinearly across multiple timelines. Cryptic dialogue and connect-the-dots plotting stingily stringing out the story. “Destroyer” basically boils down a full season of “True Detective” tropes into feature film format.
The weathered leather of Erin Bell’s face fills in broad strokes of backstory before we ever see her first flashback. A long-term sting operation went sideways, down, and then exploded 17 years ago when she was still a fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy. Now an LAPD detective, haunting memories have driven her to divorce, alcoholism, and alienating a troubled teen daughter. Put her on the eve of retirement too, which one could argue she is, and Erin could have covered every burnout cop cliché.
Erin’s trauma gets triggered when police find a dead man whose tattoo matches the one Erin had when she was deep undercover with a heist crew. John Doe also comes with several $100 bills colored purple, just like the one someone anonymously sent to remind Erin of the bank robbery that shattered her life. Convinced that Silas, who orchestrated the event and escaped, has resurfaced to taunt her, Erin sets out to exorcise the criminal kingpin’s ghost once and for all.
Between the dark snark of “Jennifer’s Body” and the terrifying chills of “The Invitation” (review here), director Karyn Kusama has cemented herself as a master of tone. Here however, the sequential structure of Erin’s present day progression backs Kusama into a corner of problematic pacing that style can’t get out of.
To find Silas, Erin shakes down a gunrunner who leads her to an old associate who leads her to a second associate who leads her to a lawyer who finally leads her to Silas’ girlfriend by the movie’s midpoint. Meanwhile, Erin has four separate encounters with her estranged daughter and three more with her ex on an accompanying arc of addressing personal problems.
As an L.A. resident, I’m often enamored by cinematic tours of Los Angeles streets. But these circular goose chases force indulgence in so many driving montages, the suspense accordion finds itself stuck extending to illustrate another passage of time far more frequently than action allows a contraction.
Most of the chatter around “Destroyer” zeroes in on Nicole Kidman’s performance as Erin, which on paper, bears expected earmarks of Oscar bait, e.g. acting opportunities to grieve over death, argue with frustrated loved ones, and brood under transformative costuming in ways that attract awards season attention. Truth be told though, the hollowness Kidman uses to harden Erin deadens her character with dullness. Much of the movie features Erin sitting and staring, usually through car windows but occasionally into a mirror. When Erin goes into motion, scenes simply show her sidling up to a new location to pick up the next breadcrumb on her exhaustive trail.
“Destroyer’s” ability to engage its audience trips over holes the story chooses not to fill. A romance with her undercover partner pivots Erin’s first major turn and becomes a critical component of what harangues her later life. Yet the closest inkling of chemistry we are ever privy to involves a brief bar scene where the couple rehearses cover stories. The duo exchanges knowing glances, “Destroyer’s” chief vocabulary, and shares one passionate kiss beyond that. It’s hard to tug at the heart when the string doesn’t tie a true emotional knot first.
Toby Kebbell receives second billing as Silas even though his purpose is to play MacGuffin. Rarely are villains in crime dramas relegated to such inessential roles. Silas only appears in one flashback during the film’s first 50 minutes. That scene involves him forcing a lickspittle to play Russian roulette, but that’s barely a blip on the radar to explain why so many people are running around ragged over the man.
The script also conceals a twist in plain sight by plowing forward so determinedly on the “where is Silas?” mystery, the unidentified body that kickstarted the beginning ends up covered behind a curtain. For the record, the final lasso roping everything together means to add an “oh, I see” layer rather than reveal a true Shyamalan shocker. But should you get ahead of the story before “Destroyer” drags you there, you could get caught clock-watching while waiting for the fiction to follow through.
Like the raw components required for Nicole Kidman’s role, “Destroyer” possesses a recipe for what should have been a surefire scorcher. The combined creative power of Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi can craft intelligent entertainment even out of a retread tale of tragedy. And from “Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany and “Captain America’s” Sebastian Stan to venerable veterans including Toby Huss and Scoot McNairy, the cast is absolutely stacked from top to bottom. Their talents keep characterizations from crumbling due to their thinness.
All of those elements only take “Destroyer” so far. Dry drama ends up cooling the temperature considerably as mesmeric moments bloat into deflating lulls. Bringing a comparative metaphor back to the movie’s small screen stepsibling, “Destroyer” shoots for the staying power of “True Detective’s” superior first season. But it comes up with the clunkier charisma of the series’ less impressive second round.
Review Score: 60