I was a defender of Karyn Kusama's last feature, The Invitation
, so it's with a fair amount of disappointment that I found her latest, Destroyer
, to be a disappointingly mixed bag of uneven writing and execution. Amid the largely unnecessary split timelines and the distractingly aggressive aging/de-aging of Nicole Kidman's former undercover cop now LAPD detective, certain sequences and moments work quite well, but too many fall flat. A leaner, nastier, less stylized version of the film with much of the fat cut away would be a worthwhile thriller with a strong, difficult central character, but as is too much weight is put on the convoluted presentation of a relatively straightforward plot and the central performance for either to entirely hold up. The film improves on a shaky opening twenty minutes as it goes along, but the script (by Kusama's husband Phil Hays and Matt Manfredi) makes multiple missteps throughout that are ultimately fatal to the film's loftier ambitions.
The film centers on Kidman's Erin Bell, an exceedingly grizzled LAPD detective who believes an old undercover case that changed her life a decade and a half earlier has resurfaced; her stringy, thinning dark hair and the many sun-damaged creases on her face are given too much close-up screen time (we get it, it's like Charlize in Monster
!), but Kidman embraces the opportunity to inhabit a character whose inner ugliness and damage have become her defining external trait as well. It's a promising core setup for a director like Kusama to work with — and her star clearly relishes having a messy, deeply flawed character to dig into — but the details and polish that might have made this a genre-exceeding awards contender just aren't there. We're left with a few excellent core scenes and an intriguing protagonist adrift amid a muddle of undercooked supporting characters, poorly calibrated narrative detail, and unsupported tonal and stylistic shifts.
Perhaps the film's most prominent flaw is in overly illustrating the earlier part of this timeline with repeated flashbacks that stall the momentum of the main contemporary narrative thread, when a single well-timed depiction of the key event with some of the key details made less explicit could have shaved the least successful twenty minutes off of the film and made more room for the contemporary timeline to hit harder. De-emphasizing the ultimately dispensable details of the early stages of the undercover operation in favor of devoting more time to other key relationships would have been a wiser investment. For one key example, Kidman's relationship with her daughter — which culminates in the film's best non-action scene, and the finest moments of Kidman's solid, risk-taking, and yet not award-worthy performance — should have been more front and center, especially given the importance placed on the closing moments. On the other side of that coin, Sebastian Stan as Kidman's partner in the flashbacks isn't provided enough characterization to leave a substantial impression anyway, so cutting out most of their scenes together and leaving him a pure cipher wouldn't have been a substantial loss.
Perhaps the best illustration of the frustrating contrast between the director's strengths and the material she's working with is Kusama's most successfully executed sequence, the film's centerpiece bank shootout and chase that unfortunately is undermined by the screenwriters backing themselves into a corner resolved by just pretending it doesn't exist. Kidman's detective disappears from a scene with multiple dead and wounded and suspects running loose — and no one seems to be particularly concerned about it for more than a few hours! She leaves the scene and we hear a montage of ignored voicemails from her partner and increasingly high-ranking superiors demanding she report in — a reasonable request given that she killed at least one person at the scene, among other reasons — but we never get any indication that there's a concerted effort to find her over the next several hours, despite what would seem like a concerning possibility she'd been abducted during the chaos ... and when she runs into her partner the next morning, he doesn't even mention it! "Hey, remember the major shootout yesterday? Glad to see you're alive and everything, but you should really make a report on that to somebody!"
Another key failing of the film is in far overselling the primary villain as an evil mastermind, when both the performance and Kusama's framing of that character in the flashbacks utterly fail to match what the dialogue and some of the directorial flourishes promise to be the second coming of Keyser Soze. Neither hidden from view until absolutely necessary nor fully fleshed out as someone worthy of the bloody pedestal the film puts him on, Toby Kebbel's Silas is left stranded in a middle ground; a violent but unremarkable asshole who is given too much exposure to be mysterious or enigmatic, but too little to be more fleshed out than an indistinct stock bad guy.
Finally, the film ends with a bit of timeline trickery that isn't particularly surprising and another flashback that is well-visualized and might have worked as an emotional conclusion to a better film, but here feels like a largely unearned and out of place stylistic flourish.
The script also goes out of its way to emphasize how nasty this world and these characters are, sometimes visibly trying too hard to do so
(as when Kidman's character gives a bedridden, sore-covered, cancer victim a grim handjob for information)
and at other times not trying hard enough to be convincing
(to illustrate how TWISTED the villain is, one flashback has him coerce one of his minions into an overly familiar game of Russian roulette that is not nearly as suspenseful or shocking as the film wants it to be).
Where The Invitation
stayed right in its B-movie lane all the way across a satisfying finish line, Destroyer
veers back and forth across those lines, unable to choose between being a sleazy, gritty noir with a nasty edge or a more emotional, character-based drama and unable to be fully satisfying as either. As disappointing as this latest effort is, Kusama still has a lot of the strengths and skills necessary to produce noteworthy genre films — but she's going to need better scripts if she wants to try to push the boundaries of those films or escape them entirely.