Destroyer is a prestige, independent picture from Annapurna Pictures that came out last December and which I recently found on Hulu. It is a modern day noir story set in L.A. that features a female detective, Erin Bell, played by Nicole Kidman. 17 years ago, Erin, a local sheriff deputy, worked undercover with FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate drug-dealers-turned-armed robbers, led by Silas (Toby Kebbell). Something goes wrong, and Chris winds up dead. In the present day, Erin gets a message from Silas. He’s back, and she intends to find him. The two stories, past and present, are woven together via a series of flashbacks. There is also a subplot about Erin’s daughter, Shelby, starting to go down a bad path, most likely due to Erin’s horrific parental neglect.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that Destroyer suffers from too little story. The two-hour run-time is padded out with many of Erin’s intense, inscrutable stares. The present-day plot involves Erin revisiting old gang members, one by one, and asking them questions until they obligingly answer. There isn’t really a mystery to solve, just stakeouts and interrogations. The past plotline of Erin’s undercover assignment is muted of danger and suspense. Destroyer is a character-driven story where the main character is an inscrutable cipher. There is strong acting, especially from the supporting cast, and individual scenes are well-crafted. It has potential, but the weakness of the story holds it back.
I’m not an expert on the noir genre, but I was introduced to the concept in college. I understand the tradition of the alcoholic detective who uses his fists to get from point A to point B. Does it, however, work in modern day? And does it work when you gender-flip the detective? In Destroyer, it does not. Rather than view Erin as hard-boiled, I saw her as incompetent.
(Click to see full review. Potentially some spoilers. I do describe scenes, including scenes at the end, but I try not to give away twists and important details. If this bothers you, you may want to see the movie first.)
The woman has no social skills. She ignores all the people who might care about her, including her (current) partner. Her interviewing style is to ask factual questions in a dull manner while absorbing a ton of verbal abuse. Her judgement is questionable. She shambles from person to person, without much thought of strategy or approach. Some even call her out on it. I feel as though a modern-day detective would need to have skills at psychology and persuasion, but that’s not Erin’s style. She prefers to push boundaries, even get in fights.
The problem is I did not find Erin physically intimidating at all. Present-Erin seems ill and wobbly, like one good push can send her tumbling down. At one point, she chases a guy on foot, and I was surprised she was able to keep up with him. Her soft, rough voice belies a lack of sleep; there is no energy, no power to the way she speaks. She looks like she’s on the verge of falling apart.
Erin is healthier in flashbacks, but I still don’t buy her as a powerful figure. Past Erin comes across as more vulnerable. At first, it works in her favor. She is a novice on her first big assignment. I felt nervous for her. Once she gets to the robbers’ house, however, Erin doesn’t do much. She’s never shown making much effort to either gain the group’s confidence or find information. Nor is there the threat of violence, sexual advances, or psychological pressure. These dangerous gang members let her wander indiscriminately around the house.
We’re supposed to see the head gang member, Silas, as a big threat, and, in the flashbacks, he has one sinister moment. Using nothing but psychological pressure, he coerces a fellow gang member, Arturo (Zach Villa), into play Russian roulette. This is an intense scene--or would have been, except back in present day, we already know that Arturo survives. This is part of the problem with flashbacks--present day information constantly undermines the suspense.
For all the time that Erin and Silas are in the house together, Silas, has only one moment of interacting with Erin, and it comes with no context whatsoever. Sitting outside in the dark, Silas tells Erin that she is hungry, that she’s a liar, that she wants power and to be seen, but she’s also afraid if she’s seen, she might be punished. Erin… listens. And that’s it. This is supposed to be a turning point in Erin’s character--and frankly, for the bulk of the film, it is the only psychological insight we’re going to have. This vague monologue, however, is not a substitute for a relationship. Does she trust him? Does he like her? Is there any reason to believe what Silas says is accurate? Why are they chilling outside anyway? Who knows?
Now if it been Erin, not Arturo, who decided to play Russian roulette, that would have meant something. It would have shown that Erin falling under Silas’s persuasion, it would have given them a connection, it would have made him feel threatening to her. And given that Chris was in the room, watching the scene--well, let’s just say, that would have upped the drama.
Aside from the introducing the members of Silas’s gang, the real purpose of the flashbacks is to establish the relationship between Erin and Chris. Since the whole impetus for Erin acting in the present is Chris’s death, this relationship needs to work. And it… really doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, it starts off well enough. The first time we see Chris, he and Erin are in a restaurant discussing their undercover identities. They are sharp, professional. Then Chris tells Erin to kiss him. For professional reasons; she’s playing his girlfriend. The scene insinuates the two will be lovers later on. I don’t think this is a spoiler, since it appears in the trailers, but the film plays coy with this fact, holding back information on the nature of their relationship as though it’s a big mystery to be revealed.
And this is a problem. You cannot hold back this information, because the audience needs to become invested in this relationship. For me, personally, in every love story, there is a question of why. Why does he love her? Why does she love him? Why does their relationship work (or not work)? What drives these people together? Destroyer is patently uninterested in answering these questions.
This is how their love affair is presented. As Erin wanders the house, she happens to overhear important information about a robbery. She goes over to Chris, who’s snorting coke with one of the gang members, and whispers seductively in his ear. He takes the cue and follows her into the bedroom. Obviously, she wants to tell him what she learned, right? No, surprise! She just wants to sleep with him. They both start kissing passionately.
And… that’s it. They’re in love now, I guess, and it is such a strong and passionate love that he will fundamentally change his character for her, and she will throw away her life pursuing vengeance over him.
Grr… I’m sorry, but this is a pet peeve of mine, so let me rant for a moment. As a writer and an incurable romantic, this “love” scene is lazy writing. I’m sorry, but it is! Nobody told you that you needed to make Destroyer into a love story, but you decided to make the key relationship a romantic one. So suck it up and show us the characters falling in love! Do not go the Hollywood shortcut: cast attractive actors and have them kiss. That is not love! I do not accept this! I’m sorry if romance is hard and weird and embarrassing--grow up and learn how to write it!
Okay, rant over.
To be fair, the writers do include another scene that portrays their relationship in a better light. This scene doesn’t show me how or why they’re in love, but at least they admit to being in love. It is the only scene that contains any emotional bonding between Erin and Chris. Moreover, it establishes their motives, it foreshadows Chris’s death, and it reveals Erin’s guilt. Erin and Chris have both been hard to read, and now, at last we have some insight into who they are.
This scene occurs at the very end of the movie. As in, one minute before the credits roll! It’s as if the film-makers are saying, “We’ve saved our best for last. Look, now you have a reason to care about these characters. Isn’t that worth waiting for?” No! The movie is over! If I didn’t care about Erin and Chris’s relationship during the movie, why would I care about it now?!
If they had just stuck that scene where it should have been, in its natural place in the narrative, Destroyer would have been so much better. Not perfect, but at least the ending would have stuck. The climax of the film is Chris’s death, and it is well-acted, appropriately tense, and artistically composed, probably my favorite scene. But since the filmmaker decided to withhold vital information about their motives and relationship, Chris’s death does not have the dramatic crescendo it should have had. I could not full appreciate Erin’s anxiety, nor Chris’s fateful actions, because the context was removed.
As for the current-day plot of Erin hunting down Silas, that ends with an anti-climatic whimper, partially saved by a twist. The twist is sort of a cheat, but it worked for me. The subplot regarding Erin’s daughter ends with a heart-to-heart between mother and daughter that leaves both women crying. It has the look of something dramatic and profound, but when I sifted through all the tears and monologues for meaning, I came up empty.
I have the feeling that Erin’s relationship with her daughter is meant to be a redemption arc, of some sort. “Mama is bad, but daughter might still be able to do good. Don’t be angry like Mama. Mama loves you.” And yet, at the end of the day, Mama still ditches daughter, leaving daughter to cry alone in a restaurant. And for that reason, I do not buy that any of these words are true. Erin is not sacrificing herself for the sake of her daughter. She is sacrificing her daughter for the sake of vengeance and anger. This has been a continuous thing throughout her daughter’s life. One incredibly vague speech is not going to change anything.
Before I watched this film, I braced myself, because I’d heard Destroyer was dark and bleak. But after seeing it, I thought it should have been darker and bleaker--because maybe then it might mean something. I suppose the film is “bleak” in that Erin has clearly given up on herself, both physically and spiritually, and is pursuing vengeance as a means of self-destruction. But this kind of bleakness simply made me disassociate from the character. Erin has no fight, no spark, no real desire—so why should I root for her?
Destroyer was not bleak in a way that shed light on harsh realities. On a personal, inter-personal, societal, universal, or spiritual level, I had no idea what it was trying to say. At the very end of the movie, images appear: a dog, snow, and skateboarders in slow-motion. These are supposed to symbolize something, but I had no idea what. You can’t have symbols without themes, and there are no themes in Destroyer, because the film didn’t bother to show us the why or how of anything. It was a long string of whats. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. The end.
Destroyer was well-crafted in the piecemeal, but the narrative did not come together. I didn’t love it or hate it. It had the same empty-box syndrome as The Apparition, almost intentionally. Destroyer invites you to imagine what it could mean, and if you want to create your own themes, go ahead. Maybe the writers know what the movie is about. Maybe the director knows. But whatever the secret is, they didn’t bother sharing it with me.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.