Destroyer is a hardboiled bit of crime pulp that you’ve seen a thousand times before. Of course, the filmmakers know that and hope that the ingenuity comes in the telling and the details. Unfortunately, director Karyn Kusama’s approach is a fractured narrative to withhold secrets and sneak in redemption to a world where none is possible. That would have been an original enough twist decades ago, but now it’s just another trope executed in a particularly pretentious fashion.
That leaves the novel aspect of the movie to the unexpected casting of Nicole Kidman as the dirtbag damaged detective. Even though she’s good and destined to get plenty of awards hype, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that a better version of this movie exists and you’ve probably already seen it.
You certainly haven’t seen Kidman like this before, slathered with ghoulish makeup and browned teeth. She limps and stumbles through scenes, swears, and is downright terrible to others (in ways that suggest it’s all the result of her own trauma, of course). She plays one of those noirish detectives whom everyone on the force hates, even though no one can deny the results she gets. She’s on the hunt for a bank-robbin’ gang leader (Toby Kebbel), obsessively so, as if it’s personal. She’s also struggling to rebuild her relationship with her teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) in sad ways that suggest secrets. How will we learn the details? Why, through flashbacks of course! Flashbacks involving an undercover job infiltrating that bank-robbing gang with a hunky FBI agent (Sebastian Stan). The story jumps around in time until all is clear. No straight line, you see, but a circle.
If that sounds fun at all, don’t worry, it’s not. Director Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body) isn’t interested in a crime movie romp. No, this is one of those painful and existential detective yarns, where crime movie mysteries are but a pathway to mysteries of the soul. It’s all about an antihero who’s so tragically self-destructive that she’s actually a hero after you peel your way through the onion. Yadda-yadda-yadda, it’s all heavy-handed and kind of dull.
It’s beautiful, at least. Kusama knows how to craft a stylish flick, but she tries a little too hard to give it weight. The movie has too many self-conscious editing tricks and symbols, weighed down by far too much emotional baggage for one seedy cop drama to carry. By the time the final (admittedly clever) twist arrives, it’s impossible to feel satisfied. There’s been too much turmoil and pensively painful acting for a crime movie and not enough insight to justify all the pretentious symbolism begging you to take it all VERY seriously.
Despite all that, the film has a handful of strong scenes that deserve a better movie. Too many talented people were involved to avoid that. Bradley Whitford gets a fabulously smarmy cameo that could play as a satisfying short out of context. Kusama and her team handle the heist scenes with enough grit, suspense, and genuine shocks to nail the desired visceral impact. Kidman is even a damn fine damaged lead whenever in the scenes when her overdone makeup doesn’t make her look like the meth addict equivalent of a clown.
There’s probably a worthwhile neo-noir buried somewhere in Destroyer that maybe could be carved out of the existing footage with all of the arty handholding removed. Too bad we’ll never see it. We’re stuck with this shaggy mess of a movie about a shaggy mess of a detective who deserves more.