Let’s see if it’s your time.
It’s billed as a down and dirty revenge flick with some calling it a redundant variation on a theme “better” films already delivered. That’s not how I see it, though. No, Karyn Kusama‘s latest is about guilt. Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) isn’t drowning herself in alcohol and pushing everyone who loves her away because she’s devoting her life to finding the leader (Toby Kebbell‘s Silas) of the criminal outfit she infiltrated as a green undercover agent over fifteen years ago. That may be her current goal, but it wasn’t Silas who ruined her life and sent her into a perpetual downward spiral. She did that all her own. Erin therefore drinks to quiet the pain and punish herself. Killing him simply means nobody else dies because of her actions.
Kusama isn’t hiding this fact either. Destroyer isn’t setting itself up as an actioner before Erin’s memories start haunting her. Just look at this woman who’s barely able to get out of her car stumble towards a crime scene the acting detectives try stopping her from approaching. She’s a broken soul estranged from her slowly-becoming-a-delinquent daughter (Jade Pettyjohn‘s Shelby) and far-removed from her last stable relationship with the girl’s father Ethan (Scoot McNairy). She’s sleepwalking through life in a way that makes us wonder how she still has a badge—less bloodthirsty avenger than cornered animal. So when she receives the message Silas sends to open their collective pasts’ floodgates, we recognize her fear isn’t about what he might do. It’s about remembering everything she had already done.
Written by Kusama’s long-time screenwriters Phil Hay (her husband) and Matt Manfredi, this slow burn thriller methodically revealing its relevant details to ensure we accept how far gone Erin’s sense of self-preservation is might be their best collaboration yet. Do things sometimes risk going too far into darkness? A coerced hand-job for James Jordan‘s Toby guarantees the answers is yes. But that’s the only truly egregious moment of the whole. The rest comes steeped in history and perseverance. When she goes after those with the potential to lead her in the right direction as far as Silas’ whereabouts, she’s not playing around. So when they look to get the upper hand through violence, Erin won’t be deterred from following suit. She’s already lost everything. This is about earning relief.
So she visits her old boss (Toby Huss), Toby, Arturo (Zach Villa), DiFranco (Bradley Whitford), and Petra (Tatiana Maslany). Each reunion brings with it a state of heightened emotion whether regret, rage, or the laughter of incredulity. They also provide Erin markers with which to delve deep into her memory and bring her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) back to life. These glimpses fill in the blanks as far as motivations and evolutions are concerned. How does one become a Good Samaritan? How does another find herself suffocating under the weight of warped love and dangerous drugs? And what happened to make it so Chris isn’t here to also find somewhere? We will eventually see the bank robbery, but for now the disparate players are vastly more important.
Erin is exorcising demons along this journey. She’s recalling what she did to these people and what they did back. It’s a malicious episode of “This is Your Life” with those she hoped to forget in order to wallow in her grief and suffering being forced back into consciousness. They accuse her of what she knows she’s guilty of doing, every pointed remark cutting her because each is true. Add a desire to keep her family safe against the man who may or may not be cleaning up the collateral damage of what went down years previously and Erin can’t help but fall apart even further. So seeing Shelby with her boyfriend Jay (Beau Knapp) only shows her daughter unwittingly following in her yet-unknown footsteps with devastating consequences.
Kusama and team are very intentional with what they show and the order in which they do. This is due to the systematic churning through characters one at a time and the emotional involvement they hope to earn from us. They had me early thanks to Kidman’s dual performance as the current broken Erin and the former optimistic one. We see her beaten, bruised, and still equipped with a razor sharp edge of impatient vinegar ready to explode dissolve into the remnants of life, love, and ambition waiting for her targets to walk themselves into an arrest. There are the dead eyes of defeat finding lucidity when taking a kick to the ribs and the soft eyes full of worry when criminal activities turn to unadulterated psychopathy.
Wigs and make-up aside, it truly is like we’re watching two different people with Kidman leaving every ounce of celebrity behind to dive into this role and deliver one of her finest performances to-date. Whether it’s not backing down to a gunrunner upon taking his guns, pistol-whipping an upper class douchebag, or glaring to get her new partner (Shamier Anderson) off her back with no questions asked, she becomes the living embodiment of Erin Bell’s desperation. And that only makes things harder to endure when the flashbacks grow in length to show her seemingly bottomless store of vitality. It’s no mistake that this smiling version of her arrives after already meeting her damaged future. Witnessing it in hindsight reveals how her happiness was the problem, not simply what she lost.
She’s the destroyer after all. If not for Erin, who knows where everyone ends up? It’s the complacency and dream of this woman who thought she saw a way out from underneath the world’s boot that leads them down a road towards destruction with her in a front-row seat watching and absorbing their pain. Reality obviously proves more complex, but Kusama isn’t interested in external interpretations. It doesn’t matter that we know it’s the criminals’ fault for being criminals and Chris’ fault for refusing to sit back and do nothing because Erin remembers it differently. This is her story, her guilt, and her price to pay. These are her experiences marred by constant failure. And only upon the nightmare’s conclusion can any moment finally merit its inherent beauty.
 Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.