2018 AFI Fest
Looking dazed and frazzled, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) shows up at a crime scene uninvited. She fell asleep in her car, shaking off a bad dream. Wearing a black leather jacket, she has a gunslinger’s swagger, even on unsteady feet. There’s undisguised hostility toward her from the cops gathered around a body, shot dead near the river. Erin is one of them, clearly, but ostracized, for some reason. Spotting a wad of bills stained with red dye, she shudders.The rest of the movie shows us what led her to that moment.
Directed by Karyn Kusama from an original screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Destroyer (2018) finds Erin in the underbelly of contemporary Southern California, terrain familiar from crime writers like Michael Connelly (Bosch). Destroyer combines elements of neo-noir heist classics like Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Ulu Grossbard’s Straight Time (1978) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). In December 2018, Kusama interviewed William Friedkin at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre after a screening of To Live and Die in LA (1985), another heist film that, like Destroyer, portrays the region as a concrete and asphalt jungle.
In flashback, a fresh-faced Erin gets recruited from the County Sheriffs by the FBI to work undercover. She partners with veteran agent Chris (Sebastian Stan) to take down Silas (Toby Kebbell), the young, reptilian head of a bank robbery gang. Like with Rush (1991) which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric as addicted narcs, Destroyer explores the dangers of going deep cover. Something terrible happened during a bank heist out in the desert. Erin dedicates years to getting Silas.
Through it all, Erin tries to hold onto her daughter Shelby, from childhood (Kenley Smyth) to rebellious teen (Jade Pettyjohn). In the present, Shelby lives with Erin’s estranged husband, nice guy Ethan (Scoot McNairy). Showing a relationship with a son or daughter is a sure way to humanize a character as with Connelly’s Harry Bosch whose daughter is vital to the books and television show. It can also sidetrack the plot which it threatens to do in Destroyer. However, the mother and daughter dynamic is crucial to understanding what drives Erin and pays off at the end
Interviewed onstage at the TCL Chinese Theatre for AFI Fest, Kidman praised director Kusama and said “To put my weight behind women right now is an important thing for me to do.” Responding to the idea of Destroyer as “so physical and masculine,” she said, “I see it as deeply female. Which is a weird thing to say but I do see it as deeply female because her motivations are female. There’s a moment, and only a woman gets to experience this, when she finds out she’s pregnant and it’s a flash. She’s high. She’s doing cocaine. That is devastating for her. That’s the beginning of her relationship with her child. So that’s a female situation. And it’s so complicated and devastating. It leads her on this very destructive path. But, she’s maternal and she’s operating from a maternal force. It may have been a maternal force that has made massive mistakes, has not been there and has not been what we call a good mother, but she’s a mother. The basis for so much of her motivations and her drive is from that. And her shame and her pain.”
With cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (The People I’ve Slept With ), Kusama stages two of the greatest bank robbery sequences ever filmed, using real banks. I strongly disagree with Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter that the heist Erin disrupts is “a Junior League version of the one in Heat.” Take note of Tatiana Maslany as Petra, the female counterpart of bad guy, Silas.
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