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The spectre and greatness of Michael Mann’s Heat hangs heavily over Karyn Kusama’s grandiose L.A. crime drama Destroyer. It’s a portentous and pretentious work that seeks to bore down in an almost cosmic way on the corrosive and corrupting nature of the battle between good and evil. It also presents Nicole Kidman with a challenging role that takes her to a variety of extreme places, both physical and mental. As ambitious and sometimes unsettling as it is, the film, after crossing back and forth over the line many times, ultimately feels affected in its aspirations toward making some profound statement about self-abasement and sacrifice, making one feel like rejecting the whole thing despite some striking individual moments.
The first thing you see throws you; it’s the sight of Nicole Kidman looking like a spent derelict, a burned-out case, with parched skin and blank eyes, as if she has looked so intently into the depths of hell that hell has now enveloped her. Just to look at her is enough to make you feel a bit ill, and her hoarse monotone morphs into a dull whisper. But she’s somehow still functioning as a cop when she joins, uninvited, a couple of other LAPD officers in checking out a dead body and she notices two disturbing things — three red-circle welts on the back of his neck, and paper money that looks tainted with blood, which serves to tip her off that her former criminal nemesis, Silas, is back.
The hovering ominousness, tough talk and sense of ever-present threat rumbling around in Theodore Shapiro’s score remind viewers at once of Mann’s towering 1995 crime classic, to the extent that you can’t get the comparison out of your mind, which is not a good thing for the imitator. But screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (crazy/beautiful, Kusama’s Aeon Flux, R.I.P.D., Ride Along) set things on a two-tier track that proves confusing at times but serves to clarify the perilous, self-destructive journey of Kidman’s LAPD detective Erin Bell.
Flipping back in time reveals a still tough but better looking and more together Erin, who’s at times paired with attractive young officer Chris (Sebastian Stan), and in a nasty scene she disgustingly pleasures a dying low-life criminal in exchange for information on Silas’ whereabouts. Another unpleasant interlude involves Erin’s tarty 16-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s become the plaything of another low-life and with whom Erin is simply unable to communicate.
Still, she sticks with her undercover existence and finds herself getting ever closer to her prey at various junctures: when she is received at the seaside mansion of a big criminal lawyer (Bradley Whitford, very effective in one of his most unexpected and uncharacteristic roles) and later when she joins in a brutal bank robbery that’s sort of a junior-league version of the one in Heat. Her participation partially disrupts the assault, but results in her nailing Silas’ female partner, Petra (Tatiana Maslany). It’s an effective action scene, if not on the virtuoso level of Heat.
There is virtually no one with whom Erin could be said to have a successful relationship. She almost always has to use money to get someone to do something she wants done, for example, getting her ex to move away and take their daughter with him. Most of her exchanges with people on any level are unpleasant, and she does not ever evince what could be called a lighter side or a sense of humor. She is not admirable and is not someone you’d want to know, or even meet, in real life.
In film terms, however, you still have to root for her in a certain way because those she has to deal with are far more vile than she is; her cesspool is the world most of us manage to avoid.
For a while, the spectacle of watching Erin navigate the toxic atmosphere that clouds her beat holds a certain low-down appeal. But we know from the beginning that it has eaten at and gotten the better of her, to the point where her experiences have degraded her so completely that, unlike her nemesis Silas, she can’t possibly come back.
Finally, then, so deeply are they into the murk of their own making that both Erin and the film come to seem irretrievable. Aided in the effort by composer Theodore Shapiro, Kusama seems to want to leave her story in some sort of existential trauma ward, a place of detention you can never truly leave. For a genre effort like this, the grandiose approach feel pretentious, something to avoid unless you truly do have chops that Mann and very few others have exhibited in ambitious genre works.
Still, it must be said that Kidman is terribly game, keen to look awful and go places she, and most others, have rarely gone before. Hers is a bold performance in a sometimes potent but troublesome film, one that does have a pretty grand opinion of its own importance.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Release: December 25 (Annapurna)
Production: Annapurna, Family Style, 30 West
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn
Director: Karyn Kusama
Screenwriters: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Producers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Fred Berger
Executive producers: Micah Green, Nik Bower, Nathan Kelly, Thornton Schumacher
Director of photography: Julie Kirkwood
Production designer: Kay Lee
Costume designer: Audrey Fisher
Editor: Plummy Tucker
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Casting: Mark Bennett
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