Despite a valiant performance from Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, Karyn Kusama’s feminist take on film noir ultimately shies away from true darkness. By Christos Tsiolkas.
There is no contemporary Hollywood star whose screen persona has seemingly been more divisive for both audiences and critics than Nicole Kidman. The camera has always loved her, from her first youthful performances in BMX Bandits and Bush Christmas, but in her early work it was easy to dismiss her as an actor of a very limited range. There was an aloofness and coldness to her, alongside a clearly phenomenal drive and ambition, and I think that combination made many of us in the audience uncomfortable. We sensed that Kidman could never play “nice”. Phil Noyce, in Dead Calm, was the first director to utilise her brittleness to teasing effect, incorporating our conflicted responses towards her as part of the thriller dynamics that propelled the plot. Not long after, with her move to Hollywood, Gus Van Sant used both her coldness and that steely drive to underscore the black comedy of his satire To Die For. Kidman was astonishing in that film: funny, sexy, ruthless and always in command of what she was doing on screen. But again, there was a reluctance to grant Kidman her due. It became a running joke for a while in my household, the number of times I would state my respect for Kidman as an actor only to have someone sniffily reply, “The one film she’s good in is To Die For, and that’s because she’s playing herself.”
From very early on Kidman had the acumen and self-awareness to choose roles that played to her strengths. There were missteps like Far and Away, when she convinced no one as a simpering traditional heroine, stoically remaining faithful to her man. But she wisely began working with a range of challenging directors – Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut, Jonathan Glazer in Birth and Lars von Trier in Dogville – who all chose to structure their films around the ambivalence and fascination we as an audience had for her as an actor. We alternated between being envious that she was a cold, rich white bitch and admiring the risks she was prepared to take. When at the end of Dogville, after suffering endless abuse and scorn, she turns the tables and reveals that she is now the personification of exploitation and power, the shock and genuine disturbance of the reversal slaps us hard because we have been implicated in enjoying her earlier degradation. Dogville is devastating as a profoundly pessimistic condemnation of our inhumanity, and yet it is exhilarating for the alignment of intent between the director and the star. Kidman’s portrayal of Grace is one of the great performances in cinema.
It is not an oxymoron to state that I still believe Kidman has a limited range as an actor and that she is also one of the greatest screen performers of her generation. In mainstream Hollywood fare, such as Bewitched and The Stepford Wives, she can come across as mannered, unconvincing. We know instinctively that her heart isn’t in it. But I’m happy for her to do as much of the crap she needs to do for the money as long as she continues to work with directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos, as she did in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, or Karyn Kusama, the director of her new film, Destroyer. With the right collaborators, she remains thrilling to watch.
In Destroyer Kidman plays Erin Bell, an LAPD detective who is self-destructing. We first see her haggard and hungover in her car, mustering the strength to open the door and go over to a group of fellow detectives who are examining the corpse of a John Doe shot under an LA freeway. Bell doesn’t walk, she shuffles, and we quickly understand that her fellow officers have given up on her. She’s a drunken mess and no one wants her around. Walking away from the crime scene, aware of her colleagues’ disdain, she cryptically sneers at them that she knows the identity of the killer. When they demand that she tells them who it is, she gives them the finger. Whoever the murdered man is, and whatever the connection he has to Bell, she’s going to investigate the killing on her own, and on her own terms. There is some deep score that she needs to settle.
Kusama and Kidman are attempting something exciting in Destroyer: a feminist revision of the standard film-noir tropes. Bell’s cynicism and world-weariness echo Raymond Chandler’s classic gumshoe Philip Marlowe, while also being inflected by the reworking of the noir myth in American post-Vietnam War cinema. Films of the ’70s such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves filtered the noir genre through the political exhaustion and paranoia that were the dominant cultural sentiments at the end of that calamitous military intervention. Kusama deliberately references those films, framing Los Angeles as a city of overbleached alienating tableaus. She stays close to Bell’s perspective, employing jarring cuts, so as viewers we are often dropped into acts of violence. Destroyer captures the disorienting abruptness of violence, the terrifying sense of not knowing where the next punch or kick or shot is going to come from. I adored Kusama’s first feature, Girlfight, about the experiences of a Latina boxer, and the fight scenes in that film had a similar verisimilitude to Destroyer. But that earlier film was sunnier, more exultant, whereas the terrain in the new film is darker and more menacing. Kusama’s direction here consciously nods to Michael Mann’s early films, that sense of druggy detachment that ran through Thief and Manhunter, and she too uses an ominous electronic score, by Theodore Shapiro, to keep us in a state of perpetual unease.
As Bell continues to investigate the murder, the film begins to deploy flashbacks. As a rookie officer on the force, Bell went undercover with a colleague, Chris (Sebastian Stan), to investigate a criminal gang ruled by a sadistic leader named Silas (Toby Kebbell). A robbery committed by the gang, while Bell and Chris were still embedded within it, resulted in some great act of unnamed carnage. It also led to Bell’s self-loathing and her steely determination to enact vengeance. It is in the tension between those flashbacks and the contemporary scenes of Bell seeking out and interrogating past gang members that Kusama’s talents are most keenly evident. The tension is acute throughout.
It is also in those juxtapositions that the film is most audacious, and Kidman’s performance most revelatory. She is convincing as a 20-something working-class woman who is increasingly tempted by the excitement and risk-taking that are essential to the gang experience. The intimacy between Kidman and Stan is crucial in these scenes, and the actors feed off each other, making us see their initial diffidence and suspicion, then their gradual falling in love. The audacity of the contrasts between the present and the past arises from Bell being the noir hero in one, and the femme fatale in the other. But unlike most noir, which end with either the femme fatale’s comeuppance or her betrayal of her duped lover, Destroyer deliberately explores the emotional costs of a woman trying to get ahead in a world of male power. The femme fatale and the gumshoe are one and the same.
I wish the script were as strong as the direction and the acting. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s writing is perfunctory, often clever in its twists and surprises, but never daring. It’s most prosaic in the scenes where Bell confronts the former gang members, with none of those moments building the narrative suspense or illuminating the reasons why Bell has chosen to destroy herself. The supporting actors are all fine, except for a miscast Bradley Whitford, whose inability to convey menace is embarrassing to watch. Kusama, as director, and Kidman and Stan, as actors, have to do all the heavy lifting. Only afterwards, thinking of the laziness of the script, did I realise how terrific Kidman and Stan were in the flashback sequences. Our investment in their relationship, sketched in minimal screen time, makes us forgive many of the leaden contemporary scenes. We want to know what happened to Chris, why Bell is the wreck she now is. Kidman and Stan both transcend the writing.
There’s also a more troubling problem with Destroyer than the screenplay. The film has a lack of nerve that works against any possibility of achieving terrifying force or really shaking our expectations of the policier and noir genres. It pulls its punches. Much has been made of Kidman’s make-up and costuming in reviews of the film, often accompanied by snide remarks about how unconvincing it is. That’s lazy criticism. The real problem is that the film holds back from the narcissism, erratic rage and self-delusion that accompany alcoholism. It’s clearest in the scenes between Bell and her daughter, Shelby, played with precocious authority by Jade Pettyjohn. We are told Shelby is humiliated and betrayed by her mother’s drinking. Yet in the scenes we witness, Bell’s responses and behaviour are far from outlandishly irrational. Her parental reactions are perfectly normal and so we don’t sense Shelby’s fear, the lacerating anxiety that is part of being an alcoholic’s child. The blame for this can’t be solely attributed to the writers. Kusama is afraid to go there as a director, to trust that the audience will sympathise with a mother who fucks up – really fucks up, again and again, because of the demons of her past. We are told this but we don’t believe it. And so, in a climactic emotional exchange between mother and daughter – in what should be a primal, radical moment for the film-noir genre, which has traditionally excised such relationships – we remain unaffected. We are watching Kidman and Pettyjohn, aware that the actors are doing their valiant best to overcome the limitations of direction and script. We don’t feel the punch.
Destroyer is ultimately too clean. Kusama portrays a grim and spent Los Angeles, but with her characters we get only the veneer of dissoluteness and addiction, and so Kidman’s performance is compromised. This timidity, this second-guessing of the audience, this wanting to make Bell likeable, also compromises the film. Kusama has the talent as a director, and Kidman has the courage as an actor, to go further and to truly confront us. It’s a real shame that Destroyer reneges on that fearlessness.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Police caution".
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