THE CNR REVIEW

Seamy crime film ‘Destroyer’ is too bleak for its own good

DESTROYER

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 1/21/19

Grade: B –

Director: Karyn Kusama

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Jade Pettyjohn and Scoot McNairy

MPAA Rating: R

Running …

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THE CNR REVIEW

Seamy crime film ‘Destroyer’ is too bleak for its own good

DESTROYER

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Posted

Grade: B –

Director: Karyn Kusama

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Jade Pettyjohn and Scoot McNairy

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hr. 3 min.

In general, I’d rather watch a good sad ending than a good happy one. It’s a minority opinion and somewhat cheeky one to boot, but the essential basis is that dour denouements tend to involve more complexity and nuance than their crowd-pleasing counterparts. But there are extremes to every position, and “Destroyer” is a film too bleak for its own good. It boasts a director with a decorated indie pedigree, an ambitious plot, and a capable cast, including an Oscar-winning actress going for more gold. Yet, the film’s single-minded focus on fashioning a seamy cop drama actually undermines its narrative and leaves the audience feeling down and dirty.

The film opens with a murder scene at a Los Angeles aqueduct that bedraggled LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) may or may not know something about. Early on, it’s clear that Erin has a checkered reputation that her contemporaries don’t respect, and she clearly doesn’t much care if they do. Back at the police station, she receives a package containing a $100 bill splotched with a dye pack stain, the product of a bank robbery committed years ago by a gang that Erin and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated as undercover agents. Erin deduces that Silas (Toby Kebbell), the gang’s psychopathic leader, is out of hiding and sending her a warning, so Erin decides to find Silas before he finds her.

Erin’s search comprises ferreting out Silas’s old gang members, each providing info – via various forms of stimuli – that leads to the next. Her odyssey is interspersed with flashbacks that serve as an ad hoc introduction to each character before Erin tracks them down in the present day. We also gradually learn more about Erin and Chris’s relationship and their role in the previous bank robbery.

Yet, the original sin at the heart Erin and Chris’s relationship comes out of nowhere and feels like a forced plot fulcrum. Indeed, while “Destroyer” aspires to be a sweeping character study, its format inhibits any true character development. Erin revisits no fewer than four folks from her past, all introduced via flashback. We’re left with snapshots of each person’s past and present, but little time to chronicle their respective paths in between.

Kidman is barely recognizable, as she goes full “Monster” is search of another Oscar nomination. While Kidman is convincing as a walking ghost haunted by unseen demons, director Karyn Kusama never establishes how Erin’s dramatic physical deterioration occurred in the years between her undercover stint and the present day manhunt; we can only presume serious substance abuse, but it’s never shown. The film spends a lot of time wallowing in Erin’s broken relationship with her teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) and her lurching attempts at reconciliation, but it never fully explains how they became so estranged or even why Erin became such a bad mother. Erin’s partner Antonio literally pops up from time to time just to chastise Erin’s headstrong insubordination.

Kusama assembles a few effective vignettes along the way. When Erin unexpectedly has to foil a new bank robbery, it becomes a crackerjack shootout scene almost worth the price of admission. Bradley Whitford is at his smarmiest (his newfound stock character trait since “Get Out,” one that suits him well) as a mob lawyer and money launderer who gets the best of Erin before getting his comeuppance. Otherwise, “Destroyer” slogs its way to a climax that’s too convenient and a coda that’s seems avoidable. Having exorcised her demons, Erin closes the film wearing a look of weary contentment, pleased that her journey is done. Unfortunately, we know just how she feels.

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