Review: Destroyer

“High-concept” is a term used to describe Hollywood projects that are based on extremely easy-to-grasp ideas that have little to do with story or production values. They’re more like riffs on traditional genre tropes: zombies on Mars, say, or Shakespeare in Mumbai. Destroyer fits the high-concept bill, but in the past decade or so, the idea of “A-list movie star uglying up to play a degenerate” has already become a commonplace. Here, Nicole Kidman is an alcoholic, clearly psychologically damaged L.A. detective with looks to match. Nailing accents is something she perfected decades ago, but this appearance is something new, and it would have been nice if that high-concept had included a script that justified it.

First off, Destroyer uses one of those “start at the end” plot devices that require an incredible sensitivity to narrative development in order to pull off credibly, and from the get-go director Karyn Kusama seems uninterested in untangling the inconsistencies in Phil Hay’s and Matt Manfredi’s script, if, in fact, she even notices them. Through a series of flashbacks embedded a little too deep in the story, we learn that L.A. officer Erin Bell (Kidman) once infiltrated a gang of particularly skilled bank robbers with her lover-mentor (Sebastian Stan), and that they were eventually found out due to a mistake on her part, and that the mentor was killed as a result. She blames the mastermind for that death, but he runs underground. Seventeen years later, evidence from that last fateful bank robbery surfaces mysteriously, indicating that the mastermind is back in business, and Erin goes all lone wolf rogue to exact revenge. 

Of course, a lot has happened in the intervening 17 years, most of it to Erin’s face, which is dried-out, pock-marked, and dreary to beat the band. She’s got a disaffected daughter (Jad Pettyjohn), the product of her dalliance with the mentor, who tends to trust more in one of Erin’s subsequent boyfriends than she does in her mother, who isn’t around for her. The mother-daughter thing is a distraction, though, from the ongoing self-debasement that Erin undergoes in order to catch her prey, a process that entails not only lying to her colleagues and pulling patently illegal stunts, but also pissing off other gangland types to the point where they think nothing of beating the shit out of her and leaving her for dead. The point seems to be to allow the transformation that Kidman’s normally pristine features undergo to stand in for what we would usually expect of “screen acting,” but without the support of a story that makes sense or develops a dramatic arc. The scene where Erin gives a handjob in exchange for information doesn’t elicit anything but disgust, and if that’s the point then Kusama has really misunderstood the potential audience for this movie. One of the definitions of high-concept is that it’s also high-risk.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Destroyer home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 30West Destroyer, LLC

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