A barren, sun-scorched Los Angeles, populated by scummy low-lifes and the scummier high rollers who keep them afloat, a landscape of endless highways and deserted suburban streets. Here, a detective whose soul has been sucked out of her by years of alcohol abuse and loneliness seeks resolution for damages done to her long ago, damages for which she blames herself, and not without some reason. Karyn Kusama's Destroyer is a bleak movie, but familiarly bleak, and buoyed by vibrant, engaged filmmaking that attempts to bypass the emptiness to which its concept continually feels a destructive attraction. Between clumsy dialogue and a lean, simple narrative core decorated with needless ornamental complexities, there's a dull hollowness to Destroyer, one which Kusama's bold, vivid touch can only partially redeem; the rest of that task is undertaken by Nicole Kidman, whose brilliance here is tempered only by our expectations of brilliance from this increasingly accomplished performer. Whether or not she were capable of this kind of work 20 years ago (and I expect so, only that she was never offered parts of this calibre), had she delivered such a turn then, it'd likely still be regarded as an all-time great.
There's substance to Kidman's performance, a sense of a whole history dredged up to craft a character simultaneously running from her past and forcing herself to reconcile with it. The toughness required to do so blazes through Kidman's work here, as she balances this character's detached, almost apathetic determination with her intense emotional will. The movie itself is not formed of such intricate detail, taking instead a more rudimentary approach to developing its pulpy premise. If the thrill of plots like these is not where they take us but the ride along the way, writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have supplied director Kusama with too many mundane boxes to tick off before she can properly flex her artistic muscles. When she does, as in a somewhat incongruous shoot-out (with which a better version of this movie could easily dispense, though without which this particular movie would be of far less interest), it's terrific fun, and one wonders what kind of Michael Mann-esque figure this director could be in this industry with finer material behind her.
Yet Destroyer is no write-off, and not purely for the contributions of its star and its director. Only the flimsiest of detective thrillers could fail to excite me, and there's a twist at the end that's genuinely excellent without being excessively complicated or far-fetched - indeed, it's accomplished via cinematic sleight-of-hand that's only explicated in the end, rather than being exposed for its trickery. Oddly, for a movie that otherwise feels quite unoriginal, this is an innovative way of deploying a twist ending, and it elevates a movie that was threatening to spin off the rails with its final scenes. That it needed elevating at all is, inevitably, a disappointment, given the quality of work put in by several cast and crew members alike, but that's not to damn this movie entirely. It is, overall, a serviceable thriller with several notable high points, and proof positive once more that every time Nicole Kidman graces our screens, it's to everyone's benefit.
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