A dead body in the concrete Los Angeles “river.” LAPD cops groan when the investigating detective shows up. They are not fans; this is, we are meant to understand, someone who is a pain in the ass to work with. The detective looks like hell shuffling toward the scene: hungover? beat up? For sure, the detective is beaten down. The detective is, we shall learn, riddled with guilt, grief, regret; does not play by the rules; drinks too much; makes a lot of bad decisions. The detective is a mass of contradictions and hypocrisies, complicities and compromised integrity.
You could have guessed all of that, because we’ve met this detective before. But Destroyer is a modern noir with a big difference: the antihero detective is a woman, and through her Destroyer will upend all the expectations that come with this hoariest of clichéd protagonists. Erin Bell is not gruffly charming or inexpressibly sexy, as her male counterparts are so often intended to be (and sometimes genuinely are). Maybe because we don’t know how to see women this messed up as appealing, or maybe because we shouldn’t see men this messed up as appealing. (Maybe male fans and critics — men who’d never thought before about how male protagonists like this one come across — will find her appealing and find themselves disturbed by that.) Either way, we are confronted by the stereotype like never before, actually asked to reckon with it.
But there’s more good, smart stuff. Nicole Kidman’s pitiless performance as Bell is brave not because a stunningly beautiful actress has chosen to look like hell onscreen, but because she dares to embrace Bell and her many deep flaws as human, and because she frames Bell’s position in a stock “man’s world” as that of a welcome coconspirator. Bell’s investigation of the dead body — a man she recognizes from an undercover case she worked years earlier — will lead her to revisit her work there, metaphorically as well as literally. Flashbacks jump us back to all those years ago, when Bell was chosen by the LAPD to join an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) in infiltrating a bank-robbing gang because she looked the part, was a convincing “girlfriend” to him. It... doesn’t go well. A lesser film might have cast Bell as a victim, a pawn in men’s cops-and-robbers game. But when shit goes sideways here, Bell is wholly onboard with it, sometimes helps push it all sideways. Now, as she hunts down the surviving crooks — as sorry as lot as Bell herself is — to find the killer, she occasionally is subjected to indignities that no male cop would ever have to endure (at least not in how this mythology typically plays out onscreen). She never buckles under it. Bell’s life is a disaster, but everyday sexism is the least of it.
Director Karyn Kusama — working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also wrote her brilliantly disturbing The Invitation — is brave, too, with her sneaky cleverness. As she toys with narrative to depict terrible memories and regrets as inescapable Moebius strips of trauma, she is smashing a tired genre to pieces and putting it back together again... which will surely make some viewers squirm with discomfort. This is filmic storytelling that is as tense and as grim as we expect a crime thriller to be, but uncompromising and subtly challenging in a way that is startling. Destroyer will have you turning the experience of it over in your mind like a cerebral itch you can’t quite scratch.
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