“Destroyer” and the destruction of self
By Oscar Chavez Castaneda
“Destroyer” is a typical noir film, driven by a reckless cop running amok in Los Angeles. We also see the shell of a person in the present and are offered a glimpse at who they were in the past. Through this contrast, we are shown what happens when one slowly destroys themselves.
Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a disgraced LAPD detective. She is haunted by an undercover job that went wrong. She and her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) were tasked with infiltrating a gang of bank robbers. Things do not go well.
The specter of this failure shapes the rest of her life. An embodiment of defeat, Bell is galvanised from her apathy by a dead body that may have ties to the gang. Upon discovering this connection, Bell sees a chance to get revenge.
On paper, this film should be solid. Nicole Kidman is a good actor and tries her utmost to bring this world weary detective to life. Unfortunately, I found the character herself to be unengaging and the world to be barren. Noir is riddled with trope following leads but in this case, Bell doesn't offer more than the basic package of Sad/Angry Cop.
When examining Bell, we see that her life has gone off the rails. Her flashbacks show a woman full of life, enjoying her undercover assignment. Her happiness is plain as day when paling around with her undercover boyfriend and the criminals they've surrounded themselves with. The present shows her barely functioning, shuffling through life day by day. Bell becomes a true zombie, a slave to one master: REVENGE.
Her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), under the care of her step-father Ethan (Scoot McNairy) is acting out. It's easy to see how her mother's negligence has affected her child. Shelby is another example of Bell's failures, which causes her to lash out in vain, hoping to somehow get through to her estranged daughter. We see how fruitless this endeavor is, as her family hold little stock for what she has to say as Bell is hardly invested in their lives anymore.
From what we see, Bell needs to get her crap together. This investigation serves to point her in a direction, albeit not the one she needs to face. At the end of this road, lies vengeance. It clouds out all other thoughts, obfuscating the true needs Bell should be addressing.
She seeks vengeance for what her past mistake cost her, for what her actions lead to. Multiple times throughout the film, characters vocalize the need for people to accept the consequences of their actions. Bell's entire life is the sum of her actions. But instead of coming to terms with the role she played on that fateful day, she seeks a scapegoat; the leader of the bank robbers, Silas (Toby Kennel). In catching Silas, Bell hopes to obtain absolution and exorcise the ghosts that haunt her. But in reality, Bell needs to answer for her role in the tragedy of her past.
Bell is barely more than a sketched out caricature in “Destroyer”, a drunk cop chasing the bad guy who has come back to taunt her. If she had been given a greater emotional arc, how her story ends would have made a deeper impact. Instead, we see an already wayward person continue to neglect herself even more, to the point of self-destruction. Bell cares about no one but herself. Even in the moments with her family, where emotional vulnerability is on display, she manages to exude her own desires onto other people. If they don't serve her purpose, there's no point in dealing with them. It's this selfishness that caused me to disengage with Bell. That dissonance causes the audience to also not care about her, subsequently causing her imminent destruction to not hold much weight.
The film is well made but at over two hours, what aspects of it that I did enjoy started to wear thin. Many other films have managed to portray a stoic, tragic character running around LA chasing their inner demons in more engaging ways. The difference between those films and “Destroyer” is that the filmmakers actually make us care about the lead, in some shape or form. They are granted an emotional arc, whereas I felt Bell stayed the same from start to finish.
In the end, “Destroyer” shows us the shell of a human being who has nothing left. Burned by her past, consumed by hatred and hell-bent on revenge, we see a person who takes no responsibility for her actions. In doing so, she is stuck repeating her mistakes. The film felt like it wanted to say quite a bit but in the end I felt it didn't really say anything, much like its protagonist.
2 stars out of 5
“Destroyer” is rated R. It is available digitally and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 23, 2019.