Destroyer
"It's essentially a character study - the trouble is that there's not much character there." | Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

The thing about alcoholism is that at first glance it can make people seem passionate, intense, full of dramatic potential, but to those who actually live with it - as alcoholics or as their friends, lovers or family members - it quickly becomes apparent that every day is the same. External circumstances may change but the central crisis dominates everything and as much as it's attention-seeking and destructive, it's also boring. There's a level on which when you've seen one alcoholic you've seen them all. And we've all seen many, many, many big and small screen portrayals of alcoholic cops.

The hook for this film is that its alcoholic cop, Erin, is played by Nicole Kidman, so viewers get to see an ordinarily glamorous actress looking seriously rough. With a fairly run of the mill thriller plot whose lightweight mystery elements emerge from its non-linear structure, it's essentially a character study - the trouble is that there's not much character there. Kidman's performance is realistic but it's realistically blank, numb (and not a patch on her work in Boy Erased, filmed around the same time). She's not helped by a clumsy wig and really heavy make-up, including prosthetics to hide those distinctive cheekbones. The overall effect is like a checklist of everything Hollywood thinks of as unfeminine, from the broken capillaries and bruised eyes to the lowered voice and staccato patterns of speech. Not so much a character as a caricature.

Destroyer borrows heavily from numerous other films. A scene in which Erin exchanges a sexual favour for information closely parallels one with the same actress in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. Every hungover cop cliché is present with the notable exception of humour - Erin has no gift of the gab, no charm to persuade people to keep putting up with her. This creates a dark, absurdist humour of its own, highlighting the myths exploited by other productions, and it's one of the film's saving graces. The other is the cinematography, by Julie Kirkwood, which brings to life the bleakest Californian landscapes since Chinatown and adds much-needed personality to every location. It significantly outclasses the rest of the film.

Director Karyn Kusama knows how to frame action. The twin heists on which the whole film hinges are intelligently staged and exciting to watch, and provide human focus whilst effectively communicating how confusing it is to be in a situation like that. It makes sense that the action would be kept to minimum in order to increase its emotional impact, especially because Erin's condition is heavily related to the trauma associated with one of these events, but the surrounding material is simple too slow and dragged out. Interim skirmishes stand out for their unpleasantness (we feel these beatings much more than most directors allow us to, and Erin doesn't bounce back like a standard action hero) but are insufficient to restore a sense of momentum.

What might have made a good TV episode is stretched far too thin over the two hour running time. Kusama's realism is refreshing but that doesn't make it watchable. The ugly projection of need in Erin's relationship with her daughter feels all too close to what this film is asking of its audience. It wants the viewer to do most of the work and it gives far too little in return.

Reviewed on: 21 Dec 2018
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Destroyer packshot
An LAPD detective whose undercover work ended in tragedy is faced to confront her past when the leader of the gang she was embedded in re-emerges.
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