Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer begins well enough, a tight close-up shot of the tired face of the film’s protagonist, Detective Erin Ball (Nicole Kidman). Drunkenly leaving the car that’s been slept in, she approaches a crime scene where an unidentified body lays akimbo, blood running down the back of his neck where three dots are tattooed. In a surly way Ball confronts the attending officers, claims she knows who did it, and with a middle finger walks away.
From there we’re treated to a film that toys with time and place, using flashbacks and flashforwards to show a story of corruption, love and revenge. At its core there’s plenty here to mine, from the sullen take that Kidman provides to the general excitement that heist narratives can provide. Unfortunately, at almost every step things go awry, not just for the characters but for the film itself. Broad jumps in time can’t make up for the fact that much of what takes place leans towards the maudlin, with a tiresome solemnity to even the most salacious of moments.
The film trudges along, never quite getting its tone right or its pacing to click. This is also one of those films where you have to accept blindly some truly horrible decision making, including a downright risible altercation in a bank (with paltry backup) that exists for no other reason than a narrative dead-end that needed to be resolved. Heat this is not, and a simple matter of, say, disabling the getaway vehicle, or wearing a bullet proof vest, may well have at least helped with any notions of credibility. Nitpicking perhaps, but it’s this general sense of lazy storytelling that glosses over pedantic tropes with the addition of “mood” that most irritates. The mother/daughter dynamic is equally undercooked, a consistent battle of push and pull that never really makes either character come off well.
Only Bradley Whitford’s lawyer character manages to elevate his scenes, providing a burst of fun right when things look most off the rails. His obnoxious manner and sudden turn is both believable and entertaining, calling the bluff not only on his aggressor but the film itself.
The score by Theodore Shapiro is effective if occasionally overwrought, and a mishmash of near indistinguishable actors, from Sebastian Stan to Scoot McNairy add to the mix. Toby Kebbell plays the main baddie in a quiet way meant to be menacing and cult-like but instead comes across as half asleep.
At just over two hours, Destroyer feels a much longer ride, never quite coming to terms with what it tries to be. As a taut thriller it’s bloated, as a character piece it falters, as a kind of revenge bad cop thriller, a “Dirty Harriet”, it lacks real bite with its nastiness. Trying to serve all these masters it manages to please none, resulting in a film that breaks apart in fairly unspectacular ways.