TIFF Review: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’ can’t overcome its issues

Destroyer
 
 

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

LAPD Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) has seen some shit. Some 20 years after a heist gone wrong claimed the life of her partner (Sebastian Stan) and blew both of their covers inside a gang of thieves, she’s become an alcoholic shell of herself, haunted by the memories of those days. She was too green to have gone in then, and she could have done something to save him, perhaps, but her inaction cost him his life. However, she gets a chance for revenge when a John Doe’s body appears in one of LA’s many spillways carrying dye-pack stained money that Bell recognizes right off the bat.

In that moment she’s told all that she needs to know: The gang’s leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), running out of money from the heist that killed her partner, is back at work, and Bell makes a choice: Stop the motherfucker, no matter the cost. So begins Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, an ambitious and very silly new crime drama from one of the new century’s most underrated directors. I’m a believer in Kusama, whose work on films like Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation have commanded enough of my genre goodwill to follow her into the dark on any project, but I’m saddened so say that Destroyer might just be a bridge too far: It’s her first true misfire of a film, and though it’s sure to have its acolytes, was, at least to me, a major disappointment.

The diagnosis isn’t an easy one, however. The performances are, for the most part, solid (including a cameo appearance by Bradley Whitford, who makes more of an impression in his three minutes than most of the cast), though they’re brought down by some really odd choices on Kusama’s part. The director seemed to find herself in a situation where she was given a performance almost too good by her lead actress, so she had to find a tragic flaw in it to prevent her film from being truly great. Hence, the heavy make-up.

Kidman’s old-age get-up never quite makes it out of the Uncanny Valley, and as such, you’re always aware of her prostheses and the massive amount of work done around her eyes. At its very best, one can just sort of ignore it, at its absolute worst, it makes one of the world’s most recognizable actresses look like one of the Aliens from Cocoon. Perhaps it would be more acceptable and less distracting if the rest of the aged-up cast members looked like her, but they’re all practically the same as they are in scenes set in the past, which makes these decisions all the more baffling. A close second when it comes to silly dress is Toby Kebbell, playing Silas, who spends his flashbacks looking like a fusion of Tommy Wiseau and Dan Halen from Adult Swim’s Squidbillies, and plays the part like a lobotomized Charles Manson, never quite communicating to us the ringleader’s threat outside of one silly game of Russian Roulette.

There’s a tight 90-minute thriller that’s drowned in Kusama’s excess — the set-up is one we’ve seen a thousand times before, down to her protagonist’s motivations and the revelations to come, outside of a swell twist that occurs in the final minutes — but she spends so much time dealing with things that ultimately don’t matter much to the characters or to us. Each and every scene we spend with Bell’s daughter is a wasted moment: A failed attempt to contrast the time she failed to save a life with her latest attempts to free her daughter from the clutches of a scumbag club-goer (Beau Knapp). It’s a shame, too, given that there’s some beautifully funny action that happens throughout the film thanks to Bell’s trigger-happy nature — a bank robbery nearly turns into a hostage massacre because the drunk detective won’t wait for back-up, telling responding officers that “THIS IS A GUNFIGHT” even though no one has fired a shot yet, and there’s a fight sequence in an ice cream shop between an unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany and Kidman, in which the latter knocks the old-age make-up off the former at one point.

Destroyer isn’t a truly bad film, it’s just well below the standards of Kusama’s prior work, one that the director can’t manage to find the appropriate mixture of camp and thrills to make it compelling for more than minutes at a time.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.