Culture

Film

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

By Joanna Di Mattia
Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Destroyer

Sitting face-to-face in a Los Angeles diner, Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) offers her teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), some insight into what makes her tick. “I know what it’s like to grow up mad,” she reveals. “I’m still mad. It’s burnt a circuit in my brain.” Living with all-consuming rage binds these estranged women. Like her mum, the 16-year-old is mad with the world and on track to make mistakes she might never recover from. But Erin wants something better for Shelby – a life unlike hers, a decent one. “You can be better than me.”

By the time we arrive at this late scene in Karyn Kusama’s bruising and transfixing new film, Destroyer, we have a good idea what this blistering corrosion looks like and the damage it has done to Erin. We see it in the film’s first shot – an unforgettable extreme close-up of Kidman’s face as Erin wakes up in her car. She’s parked beneath an underpass and the morning light bleaches her parched, sallow skin and sunken eyes. We see it in the feral register of Kidman’s performance as Erin stumbles stiff-legged from that car onto the nearby scene of a murder where she announces to the attending officers that she knows who did it. It is in the way she moves like a wounded animal, as one of the cops observes, like she “drags an anchor”. Later, Erin’s “madness” explodes in the violence she forcefully and relentlessly visits on others.

Erin does know something about the crime scene revealed in Destroyer’s opening scenes. She recognises the distinct tattoo on the back of the victim’s neck – a reminder of an undercover assignment 17 years earlier, in the Palm Springs desert where she was embedded with a gang with a taste for armed robbery. Destroyer tracks her revenge mission, with her sights set firmly on the gang’s sleazy, sinister leader, Silas (Toby Kebell). Kusama employs tightly integrated flashbacks, guided by Theodore Shapiro’s scratchy, jagged score, to put the mystery of the past together, including Erin’s relationship with Chris (Sebastian Stan), the more seasoned FBI agent she’s paired with. Their simulation of romance leaks into real life. Poor decisions are made; morality is compromised.

How Erin feels about her past is visible for the entire world to see on the contours of her haggard face. It is eating her alive. Much has been written about Kidman’s appearance in Destroyer. She has been described as completely unrecognisable, which is not entirely true. Relying mostly on make-up, not prosthetics, Kidman first appears in that close-up as a version of herself, her porcelain skin stained with sunspots, bruises and grime. Her eyes seem incapable of opening; her hair is a limp, near-colourless mop. “You look terrible,” her old FBI boss later remarks when she pays him a visit. And it is true. But more than terrible, Erin looks exhausted and defeated by life.

There is more going on in Destroyer than the “de-glamming” of a usually glamorous actress. Along with these surface amendments, which create a mask of sorts for Erin to hide behind, Kidman digs deep, using her whole body to disclose Erin’s brutality and vulnerability. She speaks in a low register, often slurring her words and not rising above a whisper. Her walk, with its scurrying, slightly bow-legged drive, suggests she is broken. Yet she is also ferocious – her body charging into the frame and commanding the action, as we see when her mission takes her to corrupt lawyer DiFranco’s (Bradley Whitford) trashy mansion. Everything about Kidman’s performance seems heightened to discomfit and confront. That Kidman is also playing the Erin of 17 years earlier only magnifies her decline.

The third of Kusama’s films to be scripted by Phil Hay (her husband) and Matt Manfredi, Destroyer reads and plays, for the most part, like a neo-noir crime thriller. Kidman’s Erin is that rare thing – a female antihero. She’s chaotic and compromised. The world she moves through – shot beautifully with granular light and shadow by cinematographer Julie Kirkwood – is weak on law enforcement and short on justice. She wants someone to be “accountable” but she is also part of the mess. Erin, as a character describes her, is not averse to “colouring outside the lines a little” if she needs to, in the tradition of male antiheroes like Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, 1971) and Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (The French Connection, 1971) who populated American crime cinema in the 1970s.

But within these recognisable genre conventions, Destroyer’s dominant driving force isn’t the investigation of a crime, but of rage, specifically women’s rage – what it looks like, where it comes from, what it is capable of unleashing. It is a subject common to all of Kusama’s work, especially her magnificent debut Girlfight (2000), a boxing film with a teenage Latina punching at its centre, and also the misunderstood Jennifer’s Body (2009), which has now achieved something akin to cult status. In both films, women’s anger is directed towards systems that oppress them. In Girlfight, Diana (Michelle Rodriguez, in her first role) channels the fury she feels after her mother’s death into the boxing ring; in Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer (Megan Fox) is a flesh-eating zombie who makes a meal of the many men who have wronged her. Women are rarely allowed to be angry in American cinema, but Kusama’s women regularly let their fury explode. If there’s a Hollywood rulebook for how women’s bodies should look and behave on-screen, Kusama hasn’t read it.

Erin carries her rage around like a cancer, punishing herself with guilt, taking the beatings that come her way almost willingly. “I’m not good,” she says, and the film complicates this statement. If Erin is “unlikeable” she is not impossible to relate to. Like many women on screen who suffocate their rage, Erin turns hers inwards – she drinks until she blacks out, takes little care of herself, and sabotages relationships. “I don’t care what happens to me,” Erin says, and we believe her. But Erin’s rage also manifests outwards, into acts of startling violence on both male and female bodies. She behaves like we have grown accustomed to seeing men behave within this particular narrative space. Kusama is a rule-breaker, and Destroyer is not a simple case of flipping the gender script. That Erin is a woman and a mother is vital to understanding what fuels her fury.

Erin’s rage precedes the events in the desert, and is as much about class as it is about gender. During a key flashback, she admits that it’s been boiling in her for a lifetime. “I’ve spent my whole life scrapping, jealous, hungry, scared.” Hers is a particular kind of deprivation, born from poverty, neglect and abuse. She’s a marginalised figure – whatever social power she has she’s had to claim with her badge and gun. Like Jennifer and Diana in Kusama’s earlier films, Erin’s anger is not presented merely as a response to one event: it is the fury of a woman who has struggled to escape the narrow world offered to her by circumstances beyond her control.

In this way, women’s fury is often linked to survival. It’s this instinct that connects Erin and Petra (Tatiana Maslany), a woman used and abused by Silas. Petra is a rich girl who chose a life of crime over one of easy comforts. But similar to Erin’s, Petra’s life hasn’t turned out quite as she had hoped. Disappointment and indignation keep them both moving forward, searching for more. It makes Erin sharp and focused, as much as it leaves her wounds wide open and weeping. Shelby’s older boyfriend, Jay (Beau Knapp), calls Erin “a rage junkie”, and it is clear that she needs it, even while it hurts her. It propels her forward, towards possible redemption, if not for herself, at least for her daughter. Erin stays mad so that Shelby doesn’t have to.

Destroyer isn’t interested in providing comfortable solutions to spiny problems. Kusama and Kidman lock us into Erin’s physical and emotional torment until the end. Erin is at war with the world, but mostly with herself. Each of Kusama’s films imagines anger as a liberating force for character and audience alike. When Erin enters a crime scene, cocks her head and shoots her gun, we feel this release. But Kusama also acknowledges its destructive potential. It is a long-held platitude that a woman’s weapon of choice is poison. There’s truth to this cliché here. Erin’s rage is a toxic substance, and she saves the largest dose for herself.

Joanna Di Mattia

Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic who has written for many publications and outlets, including Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, SBS Movies, Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Big Issue and Fandor.

Destroyer

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