American filmmaker Karyn Kusama has had what might best be described as an uneven career, both in terms of the critical and commercial reception to her work. On the one hand are Aeon Flux (2005) and Jennifer’s Body (2009), films that — at the time of their respective releases, at least — boasted few supporters, although the latter has developed something of a cult reputation since. On the other are her emphatic successes: her 2000 debut feature Girlfight, with Michelle Rodriguez, and 2015’s The Invitation, a shrewd, tightly-wound horror film that —for those of us watching her career over the last two decades — lived up to what we always knew she could do given the chance.
Hopes were high for her latest, Destroyer, and Kusama has delivered beyond what even her admirers might have hoped. While a single, pre-TIFF publicity image of a bedraggled Nicole Kidman gave a hint of the stripped-back rawness her performance might offer, very little could brace us for what actually plays out on screen. Haggard, hungover, and verging on derelict, Kidman’s police officer character’s half-focused stagger and weary, resigned drive for revenge is overtaken almost wholly by just how downtrodden she looks. She spends much of the film looking like she has pissed herself and hasn’t realised. You can virtually smell it.
The film begins as Kidman’s officer Erin Brown turns up to a murder scene and calmly tells her dismissive, disgusted colleagues that she knows who did it. It’s hard to tell if she’s serious or not, but the ensuing investigation unpacks Erin’s complicated past: as a young, inexperienced law enforcement professional she went undercover, joining a crime gang that linked her to people and events that would haunt her for decades to come. This is combined with the slow revelation of Erin’s failed attempt at motherhood, and her own difficult childhood — one that would lead her to later make a series of eventually fatal mistakes.
Impressively shot by Julie Kirkwood — who, between this and her earlier work with director Osgood Perkins, has become one of the strongest working cinematographers in American independent cinema right now — there’s an almost contradictory gloss of the film’s polished and clearly accomplished technical aspects (particularly in Kirkwood’s strongest areas of shadow and tone) and rawness of its content to Destroyer that makes captivating on a visual level alone. Kusama’s long-time editor Plummy Tucker, meanwhile, works in total harmony with her director; the film’s rhythms are so tight that one could almost dance to it — if its drama wasn’t so paralysing.
But the real magic that renders Destroyer such a wholly captivating experience happens between Kusama and Kidman. Even for an actor at the top of her game, Kidman’s total surrender to her character is startling, as she brings this complex, difficult figure to life. It’s so much more than the restraint of her dialogue, the repression of her character’s most fundamental sense of dignity, and the ease with which she embraces her deliberately terrible-looking wig and make-up; it’s in the very nuance of her gestures: the skittish movements of her hands, the bow-leggedness of her piss-stained gait. One scene in particular, featuring the excellent character actor James Jordan (the legendary Shitty Carl from the films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead), has the dual honour of being both a masterclass in body language and one of the least erotic handjobs in film history.1
Destroyer is unapologetically a genre film, and much of its heritage hearkens back to the dark heyday of the tormented cop thrillers of the 1970s, with strong echoes of characters played by Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, and Roy Scheider. In many ways Destroyer is a straightforward cop film, but it’s far more than a simple gender-swap for novelty’s sake: Erin’s story for the most part transcends broad traditional, largely superficial gestures towards ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, reaching for a darkness that is far more universal in its outlook as it explores core themes that transcend gendered experience. At the same time, however, Kusama and Kidman are simultaneously fearless in their acknowledgement of how the impact of being a failed mother torments Erin as she struggles with her relationship with her alienated 16-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). Through this particular subplot, questions about motherhood and the assumed biological drive of women who have given birth to be somehow automatically nurturing primary caregivers is thrown into a harsh, critical light.
Destroyer is a brutal, hard film, never surrendering to a cathartic moment of softness we secretly crave. it maintains clarity in its focus on Erin’s often flawed humanity. Even for those who have long admired her work, few could have expected a film of this calibre from Kusama. For Kidman, though, it only continues to raise the bar for a performer many of us might have assumed had reached her prime decades ago. Destroyer is proof that there are no limits to what both of these women can, and no doubt will continue to achieve.