Sunday, April 28, 2019

Destroyer Channels Green Room and Mikey & Nicky In Its Exquisitely Crafted Dark Tone

"We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us", so goes one of the most memorable lines from Magnolia and Destroyer is a crime thriller about a human being whose present-day circumstances are tormented by the past. Such a set-up, unsurprisingly, results in a grim movie that has little time for levity or hope, this is a bleak examination of a person not looking for redemption so much as a way to make the emotional pain stop, even for a moment. Such a pervasively mirthless affair won't be to everyone's liking, but me? I absolutely adored Destroyer, it's an absorbing movie that executes its dark tone with exquisite filmmaking that echoes the harrowing rawness found in Elaine May's Mikey & Nicky or Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room.

That immensely tortured lead character in Destroyer is Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a detective who has spent years reeling from an undercover mission into a group of bank robbers that went so horribly awry that it left her partner and lover, Chris (Sebastian Stan), dead. Now, the man in charge of that gaggle of thieves, Silas (Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced and Erin is tracking down all of the people that used to be in his gang to figure out where exactly he could be. She's going on this mission solo in an attempt to track down the man responsible for killing someone she loved. At the same time as this independent investigation is going on, Erin also grapples with her fractured relationship with her sixteen-year-old daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn)

Destroyer is a tale told with frequently non-linear digressions as Erin Bell's search for Silas in the modern day world is frequently interrupted with flashbacks to the past when Erin and Chris were posing as members of Silas' group. The manner in which the script structures these flashbacks shows some real care on the part of screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi in a number of ways but especially in how they sometimes come off like a visual replication of how memories of the past can just come flooding back into Erin's brain without any warning. No matter what she does, she can't escape the past and these recurring flashback sequences that crop up throughout the movie ensure that the viewer doesn't either.

It's also nice that the flashback sequences eschew goofy lines of dialogue or moments of behavior meant to serve as references to occurrences in the sequences set in the present-day world. Instead, both the intense and romantic moments in the time Eric and Chris spent undercover seem to occur in a whole other lifetime from the modern-day circumstances Erin is trapped in. That dissonance between the past and the present helps cement the bittersweet flavor to the whole movie that feels like a perfect accompaniment to the relentless torment in Erin's life. All of the intensity that she either lives with or brings to the table (sometimes both!) is captured through some incredible filmmaking on the part of Karyn Kusama, a director whose 2016 film The Invitation already showed how good she is at making delightfully unbearable tension.

Whereas The Invitation was about creating suspense from buttoned-up upper-class people who seemingly couldn't hurt a fly, in Destroyer, Kusama is working with a cast of characters who are ticking time bombs of aggressive behavior that could go off at any minute. To capture those types of characters, Kusama films the movie in a frank manner that doesn't lend glamorous bombast to their entrances or violence. An extended showdown between Erin and former accomplice Petra (Tatiana Maslany) sees every bit of violence the two characters share captured in a manner that makes their physical duel feel appropriately grimy and unsettling yet totally transfixing, a fitting description for all the big intense set pieces of the film. One never knows what might happen next either in regards to the characters or how Kusama might cleverly film a scene next and that, along with the delicate way the non-linear storytelling is handled, keeps you engaged throughout.

Of course, Nicole Kidman's superb lead performance is also mighty helpful in making Destroyer such an engrossing crime thriller. Taking a cue from Kusama's superb directing, Kidman embraces perciptible grim reality in her performance that's truly remarkable, she just vanishes into a role that viscerally captures just how haunted Erin is of the past. It's an outstanding lead turn that makes Erin stand out in a long line of morally complicated crime thriller protagonists. Perhaps such a bleak lead performance in a similarly bleak movie won't be everybody's cup of tea but Destroyer truly impressed me with not just its dark tone but how it uses that tone to convey the pervasive anguish plaguing its lead character.

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