Destroyer is a guilt-ridden detective story made by one incredible director

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Tackling the leap from directing low-budget indies to tentpole features is no easy feat, and Hollywood has a history of being particularly unforgiving when the filmmakers are women. Case in point: director Karyn Kusama, who burst onto the filmmaking scene in 2000 with her debut feature, Girlfight. Five years later, she took on the feature-film adaptation of Aeon Flux, but the movie ended in disaster. After a studio regime change, Paramount Pictures balked at Kusama’s original vision, taking the movie away from her in order to hack it into the confusing mess that eventually arrived in theaters.

In an industry where male directors are often able to jump from a flop to a new blockbuster gig without issue, Kusama’s career took a different trajectory. After eventually landing the Megan Fox vehicle Jennifer’s Body, she stepped away from directing entirely for a while. But she re-emerged with a vengeance with the 2015 film The Invitation. Stylish, disturbing, and incredibly unnerving, The Invitation was a reminder of Kusama’s colossal talent, and she swiftly began working on TV shows like Masters of Sex and Halt and Catch Fire.

Now Kusama is back with her fifth feature, the arresting modern noir Destroyer. The story of Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a burned-out LAPD detective on the hunt for vengeance against a gang leader, it’s a gripping, stylish film, filled with standout performances. The script is a little too overwrought, but it’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking, fueled by Kusama’s fearless creative vision and Kidman’s transformative performance. It’s yet another sign that we need more Karyn Kusama films in the world, whether big or small.

What’s the genre?

Sun-bleached neo-noir. Destroyer is a Los Angeles movie, but rather than setting noir tropes against the backdrop of Los Angeles nightlife, or leveraging 1930s nostalgic affectation, it uses the deserts outside the city and the omnipresent Southern California sun as a weapon. Everyone in this film is weary and worn out, beaten down by too many years hunting for things they’ve never been able to find.

What’s it about?

In the present day, LAPD detective Erin Bell receives a package in the mail that lets her know gang leader and bank robber Silas (Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced. Bell and Silas have a history, it turns out. Back in the 1990s, Bell was deep undercover along with her partner Chris (Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Sebastian Stan), trying to bring down Silas and his gang. But something terrible happened, and the film cuts between Bell’s present-day quest to track Silas down and exact her revenge, and the time she spent with Chris some 20 years ago.

The summary is relatively simple, but there’s a lot going on in Destroyer. Characters leap between decades, the twisty-turvy machinations of any good detective story are in play, and Bell is also trying to navigate her contentious relationship with her daughter. It’s a dense film, with a lot to dig into.

What’s it really about?

It’s a movie about how grief, regret, and self-blame can eat a person alive. The younger Erin Bell has her own set of problems, but she’s relatively hopeful about what her future might hold. The modern incarnation of the character, however, is a burned-out shell. When she’s first introduced on-screen, she’s spent the night sleeping in her car, and the film suggests that’s how she begins most days. Her entire present-day journey is fueled by the idea that if she can just right a few wrongs, she will eventually find something approaching peace — but the events from two decades ago have irrevocably defined her, and her singular focus on addressing them makes her toxic to anyone who might cross her path and want to help.

Thematically, Destroyer has some things in common with two other films that screened at TIFF this year: David Gordon Green’s Halloween and Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself. One of those films is far more successful than the other, but both tackle the idea of how traumatic events shape and define us, and get passed along to those we care about like some defective gene. Destroyer offers another riff on the core theme, and manages to strike a balance between the laughable romanticism of Life Itself and the grim nihilism of Halloween. Bell is driven and self-destructive, but it’s by her own choice. She intentionally chooses the paths she walks down, and while unpleasant outcomes may result, there’s never a question that her own agency brings her there.

Is it good?

It’s a strong film, directed with confidence and a trust that the audience will be able to keep up, no matter how convoluted the narrative becomes. Much of the film rides on Kidman’s performance, and she’s all but unrecognizable as modern-day Erin Bell. Makeup designer Bill Corso used prosthetics to transform her physically, but the way Kidman moves and speaks really brings the character home. It’s a performance unlike anything she’s attempted before, and while it’s mildly disorienting at first — any time an actor is this deeply ingrained in the public consciousness, a transformation this extreme can bring along a moment of dissonance — Kidman soon disappears into the role.

Her performance will no doubt receive the lion’s share of attention, but the entire cast is filled with strong actors doing great work. Kebbell’s Siras is a mix of charisma and danger, while Stan’s empathetic performance continues to prove he’s more than just a Marvel superhero. Even the smaller roles are filled with standouts: Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, Halt and Catch Fire’s Scott McNairy and Toby Huss, and Get Out’s Bradley Whitford all appear. From Erin’s estranged husband (McNairy) to Silas’ gangland girlfriend (Maslany) they’re all gritty, grounded, and believable.

The weakness comes in the third act, where the film gets lost on the way to a fully satisfying conclusion. Destroyer is a little too long, with just a few too many narratives twists from screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, to the point where the audience is likely to get ahead of the film. And its final operatic moments, while beautiful, veer away from the grounded realism that makes the rest of the film so successful.

What should it be rated?

I suspect this one is going to be an R, primarily due to violence.

How can I actually watch it?

Destroyer opens in theaters on December 25th.