Destroyer (2018)

  • Directed by Karyn Kusama
  • Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

The first time the main character, Erin Bell, appeared on screen, I had a moment of confusion: “Wait, who’s starring in this? I thought I was going to see Nicole Kidman!’ She is, of course Nicole Kidman. It’s partly the make-up that makes Erin, a LAPD detective, look like hell, and/or that she’s going through hell, but it’s partly, or a lot, Kidman. I have always thought she was a great actor, with her best roles in an American accent (I think people forget she’s Australian). And she has that here, in perfect film noir growl. But I’m talking about Erin’s body: the way Kidman moves, like she’s drunk and/or in pain and/or exhausted (all of which she is). She’s thin, emaciated, not quite wiry, but with an animal strength (or desperation).

A killer from Erin’s younger days as an undercover cop is back in town, and Erin wants him dead. She’s technically off-duty the whole story, though using her police connections. She doesn’t want justice, she wants revenge. And/or, redemption for a bank robbery that went wrong and ended with people dead. That day haunts her, and she haunts everyone around her, including her 16-year-old daughter, who is following her mother’s path into darkness, unless Erin can get it together enough to save her. As the modern-day narrative unfolds, we get flashbacks to the young Erin, leading up to the bank robbery.

That’s the movie review part, and I’m saying see Destroyer for Nicole Kidman in the best role I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why I saw it in an art house theater and not in general distribution in major theaters instead of the awful Cold Pursuit. That said, I don’t think Destroyer is a perfect movie. I say that because it was mostly so good that I wanted it to be perfect.

When I was a young whippersnapper, films mostly came as linear narratives. Flashbacks were seen as a crutch, a way to show readers/viewers some supposedly vital bit of information about a character, or the story, that shows a character’s current motivation, and/or just to lead supposedly not-so-smart reader/viewers along and remind them of stuff they’ve seen twenty minutes before. The flashback was considered so awful that Wayne’s World made fun of it (while also using it) in 1992. You don’t need a flashback in Jaws to when the shark was small to explain its motivations. Nor, even, do you need a flashback in Star Wars: every character’s motivations are apparent in the first scene they appear in, from Leia to Luke to Solo. We didn’t need a flashback to a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi to understand that he is a man with a deep history, and wisdom, and power. We get all of their motivations from how they’re dressed, the setting we see them in, what other people say about them, and dialogue. That’s good writing.

Nowadays, the flashback has turned into a key tool used by Hollywood. I blame the Ocean’s 11 (et cetera) franchise/genre. These type of movies aren’t as bad as, say, the Lara Croft movies, which just insult viewers’ intelligences—they have in fact changed the purpose of the flashback to less expository use, and instead into the ‘surprise/how did they do that?’ which leaves me feeling either fooled or manipulated.

The ‘surprise’ story has been around in literature forever, though not in great literature. The last big Surpriser we had was the short story writer O. Henry, who, though there is a ‘best of’ series named after him, The O. Henry Prize, is now considered kind of a hack. Fiction, or a story, as I like it, and learned it, and read it, is not about a surprise, so much as the reader getting all info necessary as early on as possible and watching in fascination as characters move inevitably to conflict.

Having said all that, I know there are some great movies that use either the flashback and/or the surprise/how-did-they-do-that from way back. Two of my favorites: Casablanca (1942) (‘Play it again, Sam’) and The Sting (1973) with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. A more recent film that used extensive flashbacks, which I liked despite them, was last year’s Bad Times at the El Royale. In that case, the flashbacks were the point, though I’d still argue you could have done that movie without them, as a linear narrative. I like not being told about characters’ pasts. I like just getting the character as-is, and it’s the actor’s (and director’s)(and writer’s) job to give us enough to go on as we plunge into the story.

The one time I think flashbacks really ‘work’ are in written first-person narratives, in which the character is essentially talking to us, or we’re getting her thoughts, in which case seeing her memories feels natural. A great example is Cheryl Strayed’s WILD. The book. As always, the movie wasn’t as good, which is my point: flashbacks in movies, which are always in third person POV, are interruptions.

What Destroyer almost does, but doesn’t quite, is use the flashback as a parallel narrative—Kidman’s character 15 years apart, the earlier narrative showing, eventually, sort of (though we already knew) how she’s arrived at such a low point in current time. I’m not convinced the earlier time line is necessary. Example: one scene between Erin and her daughter, who describes one ‘good time’ she had with her mother: when they get caught in a blizzard. Do we really then need, later in the movie, the actual scene of them in the blizzard. I think director Karen Kusama is using it to make viewers to re-consider the story-within-a-story again, it’s a haunting image, more haunting that the daughter’s description of it: that this scene sums up Erin: she’s lost in a situation she put herself in. She’s lost in a life she put herself in. But, I got that already. It’s really just Kidman: she is haunting in this role. Any scene she’s in is haunting.

What Destroyer also does is use the flashback to give us a surprise that kind of really isn’t. We already know Erin is fucked up, that her decisions from 15 years ago are the cause. When the surprise comes, very late in the movie, it’s not really at all, just more of an extra detail in Erin’s road to hell.

A key flashback is also used at the end to ‘surprise’ viewers about what event (in the modern-day narrative) came first and set things in motion. Again, necessary? No. Did it make me feel fooled/manipulated? Yes.

All stories, and especially movies, involve some manipulation: the writer/director is revealing facts in the order and manner they want you to see them. But those important facts happen, or should happen, in the first third of the movie. By the middle, those facts and characters’ motivations have set everything in motion. Nothing new needs to be, nor should be, added to by the last third of the movie.

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