Destroyer burns slowly but brilliantly
A mostly spoiler-free review of Destroyer, a slow-burn puzzle seeped in dread and atmosphere, and anchored by Nicole Kidman's mesmerizing portrayal of a broken woman haunted by the demons of her past.
There’s something strange about watching a slow-burn during quarantine. There’s also something therapeutic about it. In a way or two, it’s like looking at a reflection.
I don’t mean to make every other newsletter about COVID-19, but the unfortunate truth is, it’s nearly impossible to think of anything these days without relating it back to our changed lives. So, when I watched Destroyer a couple nights ago, the irony of watching a slow-burn during a shelter-in-place wasn’t lost on me. All of us in quarantine, we’re living in our own slow-burn right now. Everything sucks and will continue to suck until the moment we’re allowed back outside again into crowded bars, busy restaurants, and packed movie theaters. I never thought I’d ever long for rush hour at the gym or an overstuffed checkout line inside Trader Joe’s, but here we are, doing pushup challenges at home and waiting outside grocery stores in appropriately distanced lines. There’s never been a better time for a grueling slow-burn of a movie that is only emotionally rewarding in the final few moments, because that’s the reality we’re living in.
Unlike a slow-burn, which has a defined runtime, there’s no way to know when our quarantine will end. “The virus makes the timeline” — we don’t. Here in the Bay Area, the end date was tentatively set for April 7 — tomorrow, if you’re reading this newsletter on the day it arrived in your inbox. This won’t exactly come as breaking news, but our quarantine will not end tomorrow (or by Easter). The end date has since been extended. At this rate, I’ll be happy if we can safely go outside by, say, July.
I like slow-burns because they build toward an explosion. It might feel like a chore, at times, to get to the explosion, like building something brick by boring brick. But the reward is worth the wait. And when the moment hits, when the fuse finally sparks, it makes the journey worth it. I imagine that’s how it’ll feel when we’re finally able to go outside again with our friends and family and strangers.
How much I like a slow-burn depends on how effervescent the explosion is. In that sense, slow-burns are tricky. They’re risky. The entire movie is slowly building toward something. It all boils down to the explosion. Get it wrong, and the movie feels like a complete waste of time. Get it right, and the burden of the journey taking us to the explosion feels entirely worth it. There has to be a point to all that suffering. Right now, we’re suffering to slow the spread of a killer virus. There’s a purpose to our suffering. I already know the reward will be worth it, even if the burn is excruciatingly slow.
Destroyer burns slowly. But there’s a point to the suffering. And when it explodes, it explodes brilliantly, like a torch on a pitch-black night.
Not many people saw Destroyer. It earned only $5.6 million at the box office — and that’s rounding up. For the sake of comparison, a movie with a similar budget as Destroyer (somewhere around $10 million), Lady Bird, brought in $79 million. I personally contributed roughly $25 to Destroyer’s total, seeing it twice before it left theaters. More people should see it. The good news is that Destroyer is available on Hulu. You should stream it. My hope is that you will after reading this. That’s why I’m writing this. That’s why I’m making this week’s newsletter mostly spoiler free.
Directed by Karyn Kusama (perhaps best known for Jennifer’s Body), starring Nicole Kidman, and distributed by Annapurna in late 2018, Destroyer is a movie about LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) reckoning with her demons when a figure from her past resurfaces. This is not a happy movie. It’s grueling, heavy, unforgiving, and bleak — right up until the final explosion that is rewarding, but also doesn’t bring the kind of catharsis you might expect. At best, it’s bittersweet. Don’t go into this movie expecting a happily-ever-after ending. You’ll be disappointed and depressed — well, even more so than you already are during a global pandemic.
The movie is told in two timelines that are expertly interwoven by Kusama. One shows a younger version of Erin who isn’t yet broken. She’s undercover with a local gang. She’s embedded with a partner, an FBI agent by the name of Chris. Two shows the older, damaged version of Erin. She’s no longer undercover. Chris is absent from her life. One shows how Erin got so broken. Two shows Erin at her brokenest. Most of the story is told from Two’s point of view. It’s a slow-burn, so don’t expect to find out why Erin is so damaged until the end — when the explosion finally blooms. Just know that she’s completely and utterly broken past the point of repair, and that she has enough hate in her heart to burn down an entire ocean.
“I'm mad. I'm still fucking mad. It's burned a circuit in my brain,” Erin tells her troubled 16-year-old daughter, Shelby, with whom she has a fractured and unsalvageable relationship.
The two timelines allow Kidman to give one of the best and most unique performances of her career. I’ll admit that when I saw the movie for the first time — I went into the movie pretty much blind to what it was actually about — I didn’t realize it was Kidman playing both parts. She looked and behaved so radically different as the older broken version of Erin that I couldn’t tell if it was really Kidman or if they casted someone else entirely in the older role. The transformation was radical.
It was also believable. It is Kidman in both roles. The entire movie is Kidman — with all due respect to an impressive supporting cast that features Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, and the great Bradley Whitford. She’s very much alone for so much of the film. Driving. Fighting. Shooting. Hunting. She carries the movie, trudging through the grueling grind of a story with the strength of a Star Destroyer, and the resolve and stubbornness of 2001 Allen Iverson.
The character of Erin is as uncompromising as Kusama’s vision for the film. For so much of the two-hour runtime, Erin is tougher than well-done. She’s running through brick walls at 120 miles per hour. She’s playing in the AFC Championship Game on a torn ACL. She’s a police detective, but she’s launched her own rogue investigation. Kidman plays the Jack Bauer role like a seasoned pro. Need an adrenaline shot? Watch her tell a terrified cop who wants to wait for backup that “this is a fucking gunfight” just before she storms a bank to break up a robbery. You’ll be floored.
She’s not someone you’d want to be friends with. She seldom tries to be a friend worth having. When a colleague at the FBI asks how old her daughter is now, Erin answers with “16.” The man says, “Incredible, really” and laughs. He’s trying to make small talk by bringing up one good thing left in her life. Erin responds, “I don’t remember your kid’s name. Sorry about that.” She doesn’t seem remotely sorry. The man knows it too. But he helps her anyway.
If you did happen to be friends with Erin, you’d spend every waking minute concerned for her state of mind. She refuses to be vulnerable. She’s not at all emotionally available, which is what actually attracted Kidman to the character.
“What drew her to the role really caught me off guard,” Kusama told Sean Fennessey on The Big Picture podcast. “In retrospect, when we’ve talked about the role now together, past the process of having made the film together, what she talks about that really excited her was how emotionally shut down the character was, because she often plays people who, while they might be calculating or even cold, their emotional life is still present, whereas Erin is someone who really has to actually work to understand what she’s feeling — or that she is feeling.”
Eventually, as Kusama alluded to, Kidman needed to play the Will Hunting role with her own “It’s not your fault” moment, finally letting go of all the weight she’s been carrying around. When she finally does open up and allows herself to be vulnerable (by her standards), the weight of what she’s saying hits harder. It’s like watching a valve slowly but surely filling with gasoline before a match is lit and the valve finally explodes into a mushroom cloud of destruction.
The movie, for lack of a better term, is a character study.
“For me, that evolving relationship to the character is what I was hoping to achieve with Erin Bell. A sense that you watch her and then you start to get more access to her and that in getting the access, we’re starting to understand the brokenness,” Kusama said. “We talked a lot about like, what are the points where we really get to the heart of the matter in that character with a little more openness? And then, where does she remain closed? …
“Even at her most enraged, she’s hiding. There’s something essential about her rage, when she lashes out, and on a movie level I think there’s probably something cathartic about it. But we’re still not understanding her. And I think there are areas of the film, though, where we are allowed to understand her better, and that was part of the shape of the movie, was getting you closer to the experience of understanding her.”
Recently, I reviewed The Way Back, “a movie about a broken person putting himself back together again.” As I wrote at the time, “I like stories — art — about broken people trying to put the pieces back together.” I think that’s why I love Destroyer. Yes, it’s about a police detective. It has bank robberies, shootouts, vicious hand-to-hand combat, and cold-blooded murder. Multiple timelines are interwoven. There’s a mystery at the core of it. But it’s really just a story of a broken woman.
Unlike Ben Affleck’s character in The Way Back, the broken person in Destroyer is mostly unsalvageable. She doesn’t want to put herself back together. She’s past the point of repair. She knows it and accepts it as her fate.
When Erin tracks down an old acquaintance, she discovers that he’s been trying to atone for their sins by doing something good, contributing to the world in a small, but useful and impactful way. She asks him how much longer he’ll keep trying to make things right. It’s obvious that she’s not asking for him. She’s asking for herself. That makes his answer all the more distressing.
Erin: “So when’s it add up to even, huh?”
Arturo: “It doesn’t work like that.”
Erin: “Then when are you done?”
Arturo: “When do you think?”
The score, composed by Theodore Shapiro, reflects the tone of the movie. It’s filled with a constant sense of dread (that reminded me of Sicario’s score), until the ending.
When the explosion arrives in a slow-burn, the music needs to match the visuals. It needs to enhance it like gasoline on fire. In Arrival, my favorite slow-burn, Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight elevated that final sequence from great to perfect. In Destroyer, Shapiro’s score matches the level of intensity depicted onscreen. It’s fitting that the final track, when Erin reaches the end of her journey in the film, is called Ecstasy. That’s the way the explosion of a slow-burn should feel.
The movie is shot beautifully — another requirement for a slow-burn. If you’re going to be watching a story unfold gradually, you at least need to be mesmerized by the visuals of the story. Destroyer is mesmerizing.
Whether it’s shots of Erin driving eastbound on the asphalt freeways of Los Angeles …
…. or a view of Dodger Stadium from Elysian Park as two damaged people reckon with their past mistakes …
… or a bank shootout filmed like a first-person shooter …
… or this spellbinding sequence that is magnified once you understand the context.
I’m not from L.A. I’ve seldom visited L.A. In Destroyer, you don’t ever catch glimpses of the landmarks that we’re so accustomed to seeing in L.A. movies, the places that I recognize despite my unfamiliarity with the city. It doesn’t ever show the Santa Monica Pier or the Venice B̶i̶t̶c̶h̶ Beach Boardwalk. But this is still very much a L.A. movie. It’s just giving us a side of L.A. that is often unseen in film.
“L.A. is such a, it’s just a fascinating city and we don’t see enough of what it really is and how it really operates in a lot of movies,” Kusama said. “I think so much of how we experience Los Angeles is its fantasy of itself, as an entertainment nexus, which it is, but it’s so much more than that.
“For us, it really was about the Eastside and the cultural density of Los Angeles, the sense of — I guess I should say, multicultural density of Los Angeles, in that there are so many different communities abutting each other. So it was always a priority that it be both set in L.A., shot in L.A., and truly in some respects legitimately about the L.A. that she was traveling in and through.”
It’s seeped in atmosphere. The sprawling nature of the story is matched by the sprawl of Los Angeles that Erin navigates in her car. You feel the dry heat of the desert through the screen. Erin seems so small and insignificant as she drives through the city and desert, like a rat in a maze or cage. The city is its own character in the film, in the same way that 1969 Hollywood was a character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a fairytale. The city was a utopia. Destroyer is a nightmare. The city is Hell. Something sinister is brewing. The sprawling nature of Los Angeles and the way Erin’s journey is filmed — with us tracking her car on freeways and interstates — adds a degree of isolation to the movie.
“It’s a hard city to get to know people, because it is truly so sprawling and overwhelming — that is not a cliche about the city, it’s a truth. You can have so much contact with people and faces, but not a lot of connection,” Kusama said. “I do think my vision of L.A. is about, to some degree, about the experience of loneliness and how we attempt to answer that loneliness or bridge it or erase it or sooth it.”
For the film’s aesthetic, the film’s cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, along with Kusama, deserve credit. For the way the story is structured, Kusama, along with screenwriters Phil Hay (Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi, deserve praise.
“The notion that a director takes over and then makes the movie from a script not written by them is absurd,” Kusama said. “I’m pretty open about the fact that great writing is the genesis of great movies.”
It makes sense that Kusama thinks so highly of writers — enough to marry one. I’m certain her understanding of writers and their craft helped her piece together the puzzle of the story like a conductor of a symphony.
It’s a masterfully told story that is patient, but sprinkles in just enough tension along the way to keep the watcher engaged and thrilled. As my former Daily Cal colleague (and current L.A. Times reporter) Javier put it to me, the movie is a “good slow boil that spills over a few times.” Just when you might be getting antsy, Erin is storming a bank to take on a gang of bank robbers, telling the terrified cop who wants to wait for backup that “this is a fucking gunfight.” I realize that I already mentioned that moment before, but I can’t stress enough just how memorable it is. That’s the thing about a slow boil. It makes you appreciate each and every time the water bubbles.
The dueling timelines adds a layer of difficulty to the storytelling. The majority of the movie takes place in present day, with the older version of Erin hunting down the figure from her nightmarish past. But every now and then, the movie flashes back to that past, giving us small snippets piece by piece until the pieces add up to form a completed puzzle. The puzzle doesn’t get completed until the final few moments of the movie. We know Erin’s angry, but we don’t know why she’s angry. Brick by boring brick, we gain an understanding. The movie eventually, patiently, comes full circle.
A few newsletters ago, I wrote about Arrival, my favorite movie not named Rogue One, and a movie that does “full circle” better than any other movie I’ve ever seen. I won’t go so far as to say Destroyer is anywhere close to being as effective as Arrival, but the two movies remind me of each other. As I wrote about Arrival, “It’s a remarkable feat of storytelling, to fit the entire story together like a puzzle without a single piece out of place, but not allowing the audience to see the completed picture until the final piece falls into place.”
The same can be said for Destroyer.
Destroyer was originally supposed to be called Echo Park, a fitting name for a movie that is very much an L.A. movie. But as Kusama revealed on The Big Picture podcast, in between the film’s genesis and creation, another movie called Echo Park was released, so they scrapped Echo Park and renamed it Destroyer.
I’ll admit that it took me three viewings to figure out why the movie was eventually titled Destroyer.
“I know your whole sad story. The bank. What you failed to prevent. Oof,” Bradley Whitford’s scummy lawyer character, DiFranco, tells Erin. “You know what successful people do, Detective Bell? They get over shit. They move on and they … they build things.”
Destroyer paints a portrait of a lady on fire. How she caught fire is the mystery the movie untangles. That she doesn’t want to be put out is what makes Destroyer so grueling. She doesn’t want to be extinguished. She wants to douse the world around her in gasoline and burn it all down — herself included — in such a way that the explosion is as destructive as herself.
Erin doesn’t get over shit. She doesn’t move on. She doesn’t build things anymore. She destroys.