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D: Karyn Kusama / 121m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa

Seventeen years after an undercover operation in which she was involved went badly wrong, leaving her partner, Chris (Stan), dead, and the head of the gang they’d infiltrated, Silas (Kebbell), vanished along with most of the rest of his gang, LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) learns that Silas is back. She receives a dye-stained $100 bill in the mail that can only have come from Silas, and which relates to the bank robbery that his gang carried out, and which saw Chris killed. Determined to make up for not being able to save her partner, Erin decides to track down the other members of Silas’s enclave, beginning with Toby (Jordan), who leads her to Arturo (Villa), who in turn leads her to a shady lawyer called DiFranco (Whitford). After some “persuasion”, DiFranco confirms that he makes monthly payments to Silas via Silas’ girlfriend, Petra (Maslany). At the next drop off, Erin follows Petra to her home. The next morning, Petra meets up with five men, one of whom could be Silas. But there’s a snag: when Erin sees them meet up, it’s just before they attempt to carry out another bank robbery…

A tense, riveting thriller, Destroyer is also a tough, uncompromising, and visceral crime drama, where almost all of its characters exhibit shifting moral perspectives, and notions of right and wrong are deliberately occluded. It’s hard to think of a recent movie that has been as deliberately and purposefully gruelling as this one, and it’s hard to think of another recent movie that has painted such a bleak portrait of human behaviour. This is not a movie where good fights evil and emerges triumphant. Instead, good takes an early retirement, and bad flourishes in its place. The nominal heroine, Erin is so plagued and consumed by her demons that even when she tries to do the right thing, it’s no good because she’s fatally compromised from the word go. Her motive for catching Silas – Chris’s death – may be the nearest thing to pure that the movie can come up with, but even that reason is revealed to be dubious at best and self-serving at worst. Erin is damaged in ways that even she doesn’t fully comprehend, and she moves forward like a shark, refusing to let anyone stop her. She avoids her colleagues and her superiors, bullies, threatens and cajoles (and in one scene, gives a handjob to) Silas’s accomplices, and retaliates in kind when she’s violently assaulted. It’s tempting to nickname Erin Dirty Harriet, but even that wouldn’t cover the psychological damage that she has failed to deal with over the past seventeen years.

Of course, all this is brought to vivid and impressive life thanks to an incredible peformance from Kidman. With her blank stare and ravaged, withdrawal-like features, she’s impossible to look away from. A physical and emotional mess, it’s only Erin’s recollections of the undercover operation that allow us to see her when she had ambition and hope for the future. As these recollections unfold we see the circumstances that have led her to her current situation: alone, unhappy, and at odds with her teenage daughter, Shelby (Pettyjohn). Spiralling ever further down the rabbit hole, Erin looks to make amends for her past, but she’s a doomed soul, and redemption is frustratingly out of reach. Kusama, making only her fifth feature in eighteen years – we can forget Æon Flux (2005) now, okay? – is on dazzling form, tightly controlling the narrative and doling out pieces of the larger puzzle like all good film noirs, modern or otherwise. However, she’s unable to breathe convincing life into the subplot involving Shelby and her much older boyfriend (Knapp), or make Silas into the badass bogeyman he’s painted as. These issues, and a couple of times when the script connects the dots a little too conveniently, stop the movie from being as all round devastating as it should have been, but this is still a strong, intelligent and bold movie that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Rating: 8/10 – some may complain that the pace lags at times, but Destroyer‘s narrative allows for a slow build up of details that makes the ending all the more effective for making you question everything you’ve seen already; the rest of the cast trail (understandably) in Kidman’s majestic wake, but Julie Kirkwood’s exemplary cinematography paints Los Angeles in gritty, washed out colours tthat make LA seem at times like an alien landscape.

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