Destroyer brings to mind another “lone cop on the outs with everyone” film, Rampart. Both films feature detectives estranged from their families amid a crisis of their own making. There are lots of shots of each detective driving alone from location to location, working any angle possible to get out of the hell they’ve made for themselves. No matter who tries to help or how powerful their potential benefactors may be, they’re driven to clean up their own messes and save their own souls, with constant roadblocks and screwups halting any and all progress.
However, Rampart pales in comparison to the solitude and risks of Destroyer, and – outside of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream – no descent into one’s own hell has ever been made so explicitly manifest like that of Nicole Kidman’s LAPD Detective Erin Bell. Karyn Kusama, whose last film The Invitation still haunts my dreams, has directed Kidman into a grave-deep hole, giving her nothing more than a toothpick to dig herself free. Kidman makes Erin’s crawl to the light (by film’s end, you’ll see what I mean) an agonizing ordeal, the likes of which few have ever attempted.
It starts by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script burying Erin under layers of guilt as she tries to outrun specters from over 16 years prior to the film’s present day. The first shot of the film is a close-up of Erin’s worn, way-beyond-tired eyes waking to the morning Los Angeles sun, a far cry from the eyes we’ve come to know and love over Kidman’s storied career. Between the film’s makeup department and Kidman’s searing performance, we’re witnessing a vivid transformation of the lively into the lifeless.
This literal, visual transition works its way into the metaphorical as we see, through flashbacks intercut with current events, the kind of cop Erin was before she turned into little more than a walking, talking zombie. With her undercover detective partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), we see the excitement of their assignment to infiltrate bank robber Silas’ (Toby Kebbell) gang, eyes alight with discovery and danger accompanying the knowledge that they’ll soon be taking this scumbag down. Of course, something must have gone wrong to turn Erin into the barely-functioning husk of a human being, the details of which are loosely dropped throughout the film until we see these events in the third act.
By then, we’re shouldered with the same demons which seem to ride on Erin’s shoulders like sixteen tons of titanium, slumping her to the ground with every step and every word uttered. She hasn’t outrun these ghosts from her past; they’ve kept up alongside her, becoming the silent killer in a horror movie where the Final Girl may not live to see justice done. Her career has kept her from raising her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) properly, seeing her starting down a wayward path with slim chances of shielding her from dangers no 16-year-old should ever experience. Ethan (Scoot McNairy), her ex-husband, is aghast at both Shelby’s transgressions and Erin’s appearance and behavior, caught in the middle between barely surviving and doing the right thing.
Kusama sinks us deep within Erin’s isolation and mania as Silas seems to have reappeared after almost two decades of silence. Silas doesn’t appear in much of the film, but Kusama makes us know him gradually through every hint and intimation Erin gives about him. His hold over Erin has never dissipated, and the effects of what he’s done have beaten Erin into her present existence like a blacksmith hammering away at a piece of steel. As Erin’s bête noire, Kebbell gives Silas an eerie, otherworldly presence, as if he’s at all at once above, in, and around everything and everyone; he’s Bodhi from Point Break, but more blisteringly psychotic than spiritual.
Throughout the film, Erin tries to keep events from spiraling any further out of control, going straight to the source of her problems (in multiple arenas) and tackling them head-on. She treats every situation the same, whether it’s Silas and his associates or Shelby’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend Jay (Beau Knapp) – like a knife targeting the slightest bit of skin visible between plates of armor. After years of running, the time has come for Erin to own her situation, and she does so in visceral and soul-crushing ways to gain any chance of penance or absolution. Her guilt has come due, and the bill is massively high; the only way to pay it may be with her life, which is what she’s prepared to give to close the account.
It would have been easy for this film’s voice to rise to a scream; however, Kusama dials it back and lets the film wash over you, its voice never rising above conversational tones. Yet in that quiet, there’s an intensity cooking to a boil as Erin trudges toward her goal. This is less of a detective story than a ronin-style film, where the masterless samurai must seek to correct or atone for previous wrongdoings with little or no help from outsiders. Those expecting blasting action will be disappointed, but those seeking more gravitas and guts (figuratively, not in terms of gore) will be thoroughly rewarded.
Destroyer is redefined by its epilogue, a jaw-dropping turn of events which suddenly jerks you out of the film’s train of thought (not in a bad way) and leads you to its shattering conclusion. It reshapes and contextualizes everything you’ve seen into the film’s final transformation, and Kusama makes sure never to tip any kind of hand, seemingly leading you down what you think might be a predictable path. Instead, we’re left with the torturous image of Erin’s eyes, with the sounds of the street echoing loudly in our ears as Destroyer‘s spell imparts its devastating truth.