With its ominous score (by Theodore Shapiro, who usually works in comedy) and the angular geometry of its photography (like a skewed overhead shot of a near empty cafeteria in a federal building, all hard surfaces and round tables), it’s immediately clear that Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is the type of crime movie that’s going to take itself very seriously. The only question is whether or not it deserves to. By the time, two hours later, we reach the haunting, devastating final shots, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Destroyer is the best crime film of 2018.
Nicole Kidman is Detective Erin Bell who, at the film’s beginning, shows up haggard and likely hungover to another homicide detective’s crime scene. One look at the tattoo on the back of the victim’s neck and she knows the murder is related to a disastrous undercover operation in which she was embroiled seventeen years prior. From there, Destroyer follows two timelines. In the present day, Bell undertakes her own investigation. In the past, she and her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), infiltrate a team of bank robbers in a series of events that will change Bell’s life forever.
Rogue investigations, undercover cops, bank robberies… This is all stuff we’ve seen before. Luckily, Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are well aware of that. Some of the hard-boiled dialogue actually sounds like the characters know they’re in a movie. After Bell and Chris practice kissing in preparation for their cover as a couple, Kidman says, “Think you can fake liking that?” The success of Destroyer depends not on novelty but on the self-assured efforts of everyone involved.
That may be true of Kidman more than anyone. She’s been such a great actor for so long that it would be foolhardy to attach superlatives but her performance in Destroyer is a study in how to not only block out any light between performer and character but also to find more than is on the page. The haunted, alcoholic detective is another well-worn trope but Kidman locates and translates illuminating specifics, suggesting that the anger that drives Bell could just as likely have turned her into one of the criminals she chases and that she wouldn’t be much different if it had. Destroyer won’t be remembered for its story but for Detective Erin Bell.
What Kusama has accomplished here has been en vogue in recent years. Movies like Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River or Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners have similarly attempted this sort of pulp tragedy. Neither of those are as successful as Destroyer. For a better comparison, you’d have to go back to Michael Mann’s Heat, another Los Angeles movie, though Destroyer trades Heat‘s hills and beaches for South LA and its thrilling midday bank robbery swaps downtown out for the neighborhood locals just call “by the airport.”
Heat gave us a cop and a criminal and let them reflect each other. Here, the potential for both lives inside Bell. We know, of course, that she’s a cop. She carries a badge and it’s what would be listed under “occupation” on her tax forms. But, Destroyer asks, is that what she is? And, if not, when did she stop being that? Crime fiction and detective noir have always been concerned with their characters’ moral identities. In that respect, among others, Destroyer ought to be ushered into the genre’s canon.