The story of a bruised and beaten cop seeking redemption or revenge isn’t new. We have seen that story many times before. But director Karyn Kusama and writers of the film put a slightly different spin on a tried and tested story and tell it from the point of view of a female cop – that’s a first since almost always revenge-seeking cops are men. So, does she succeed? Let’s dig in.
‘Destroyer’ follows LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) who, as a young cop, was placed undercover with a gang in the California desert that ends in a tragedy — because of her choices. When the leader of that gang re-emerges many years later, she must work her way back through the remaining members and into her own history with them to finally reconcile with her inner demons.
Destroyer’s biggest strengths are Nicole Kidman’s phenomenal acting and some exceptional editing work. The film keeps shifting between past and present, which makes for an interesting watch especially since you are made aware of the backstory one layer at a time (even though, you could guess most of it from miles away). While technically the film checks most of the boxes, it does suffer from writing issues and some directorial choices. Allow me to elaborate.
When you are telling a story of revenge or redemption, the underlying motive is of utmost importance. As an audience, if you don’t buy the motive, there’s hardly any chance that the film will work – no matter how good the acting or editing is. In ‘Destroyer’, the makers try hard to sell us the motive, but it only ends up making the story unnecessarily sentimental. At one point, the film almost feels like a sob story. I know, a countless number of similar-themed films have conditioned us to expect certain payoffs. But my complaint with the film is not that it doesn’t offer a satisfying payoff in the end — in fact, I was impressed by its mildly surprising climactic twist. My issue is how the film gets to that payoff.
Erin is supposed to be strong. And that she is. She is also shown as a badass. But at the same time, I felt every so often we were made to believe that she is also a woman and a mother. This is where things get frustrating. We are never allowed to make up our mind about whether we should treat Erin as ass-kicking cop or a sobbing mom. The argument can be made that why can’t she be both? Well, she surely can be. But at what cost? The end result is that is indecisiveness on how to treat the central character leads to an inconsistent movie-viewing experience.
One moment Erin is shown to be beating the hell out of bad guys, the very next moment she is shown crying profusely in front of her daughter. I am sure writers wanted to create a complex portrayal of Erin. But there could have been better ways to structure the story. Because I have no doubt in my mind that there is a great film lurking behind ‘Destroyer’. Heist scenes are amazingly well done and are clearly high points of the film. I wonder if the writers had weaved the story around the heist, instead of Erin’s emotional saga, the film wouldn’t have suffered from the issues that it does.