Runtime: 121 Minutes
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Sebastian Stan
By Juli Horsford
“Destroyer” (2018) isn’t your typical action movie. For one thing, it stars Nicole Kidman who isn’t the first person I think of when I think “action movie.” It’s also directed by a woman who is not Kathryn Bigelow, which is something of an anomaly. Director Karyn Kusama, who you might know as the director of the cult classic Jennifer’s Body, plays with the typical cop drama here. She flips the gendered stereotype on its head and crafts an intense story with Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) at the center.
The beginning of the film finds us at the scene of a crime. A man has been murdered and Bell limps her way onto the scene to have a look. The murdered man is not identified apart from a tattoo at the base of his neck and a few crumpled hundred-dollar bills that are stained with a purple dye. Bell then arrives at the precinct and receives an envelope containing one of the very same dyed bills that we saw at the crime scene. From this point on we vacillate between present day and flashbacks. In the flashbacks we see Bell as a younger (and much more healthy-looking) detective. She is put undercover with a fellow agent named Chris (Sebastian Stan), and they are embedded into a gang. Meanwhile in the present day, Bell is seemingly on the hunt to find whoever killed the man in the first scene. The present and the past are intertwined, and you begin to feel like a detective yourself as you piece together what happened and why.
Kusama attempts to do some interesting things with the storyline and even plays with our perception of time. But what she accomplishes most victoriously is toying with gender roles and stereotypical portrayals, particularly those found in cop movies. Traditionally, cop movies focus on men as cops. Movies like Se7en, Training Day, The Departed, and End of Watch are good examples of the typical types of stories you will find in this genre. You’ll notice all of these movies feature cops who are men. Kusama is already defying gender roles by making the protagonist of her cop movie a woman.
“Bell’s inner strength and desire for the truth unleashes a fury that Kusama is able to capture in a raw fashion. The fight scenes are not glitzy or glamorous. In fact before one fight, Bell throws up.”
She doesn’t stop there. Kusama takes it a step further and gives Detective Erin Bell character traits that are typically reserved for men. Bell works alone, often ignoring calls from her partner and her boss. There is no teaming up for Bell. In fact, she doesn’t accept help even when it is offered. Bell wants to do the job herself and doggedly fights to find justice and peace for herself and (allegedly) the murdered man. Her loner attitude distances her from others, particularly her daughter, Shelby. They have an incredibly complex and strained relationship that is peeled back layer by layer as you begin to understand Bell’s motivations. The fact that Bell isn’t the best mother isn’t really the point, but it’s important to note that she is given the space and grace to be bad at mothering. Kusama also allows enough room for Bell’s intentions to shine through. You can see she loves Shelby but doesn’t know how to rectify her past with her present and interact with Shelby in the “typical” motherly way.
Strained relationships seem to be an issue for Bell not just with her daughter but with basically everyone. Luckily, Bell isn’t too concerned about being liked. She’s concerned with doing whatever is necessary to accomplish her goal. That was refreshing to see on screen. The at-times arrogant “I don’t care what you think” attitude is not often found in movies with women in lead roles. The tendency to make women characters likeable often limits what they can do and say and obliterates the opportunity for more interesting and complex storylines. Not only does Bell not care what others think, she’ll punch them in the face if they get in her way. Now, of course there are other action movies where women fight. But Bell isn’t Lara Croft in a crop top using jiu-jitsu moves to escape perilous situations. Bell is the one who goes looking for the fights. On top of that, Destroyer’s fight scenes are gritty and slightly more realistic for the everyday person, with hard hits that you can almost feel in your bones.
“Despite having character traits we usually see in characters inhabited by men, we never forget that Bell is a woman.”
Despite being thin, Kidman manages to be a physical presence mainly due to her height. For most of the movie she looks slightly deranged and honestly there’s no other word for it: ill. She has bags under her eyes, her skin is sallow, and she’s frequently drunk. Throw in her constant limping and honestly, she doesn’t seem capable of taking down anyone in a fight. That is, until the fight actually begins. Bell’s inner strength and desire for the truth unleashes a fury that Kusama is able to capture in a raw fashion. The fight scenes are not glitzy or glamorous. In fact before one fight, Bell throws up. Like I said, it doesn’t seem like she’s even in shape to walk up a flight of stairs much less trade blows with grown men. When she has to resort to violence it somehow pays off, even if she has to endure a few hits first.
Despite having character traits we usually see in characters inhabited by men, we never forget that Bell is a woman. I don’t recall any male action hero or cop having to give hand jobs to get information, but Bell is subjected to this. Although Bell isn’t overtly sexualized in any way, Kusama highlights how women are treated in ways that men may not have to experience. Destroyer is not a perfect movie by any means. The ending is a bit hokey and there are some plot points that don’t quite fit together. Fortunately what Destroyer gets right is unleashing a heroine with rage oozing from every pore of her body who flits between being remarkably calculated and remarkably reckless. In that sense, Kusama is successful in flipping the traditional gender roles of cop movies and creating a complex story with a woman at the center. But what I valued more than that, was seeing a woman who pursued redemption with wild abandon and a reckless out of control energy that women everywhere might recognize boiling under the surface of their own skin.