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Fox // R // April 23, 2019
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 8, 2019 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

If the measure of quality one uses to evaluate a film's strength is whether it made the individual feel something, regardless of what that feeling might be, then Destroyer could be seen as a roaring success. The latest film from The Invitation director Karyn Kusama takes great strides to make those watching get involved with the harrowing life of a gaunt, ramshackle police detective -- and mother -- whose past encounters while undercover continue to impact and, in ways, curse her life some decades later. The psychological and physical hits that she takes, the fear and guilt that she exudes, and the absence of an ability for her to lead a real life come together into an expressive portrait in Destroyer. Despite the raw emotions and weighted suspense, however, the film's intentions as a character study stop short of conveying a deeper understanding of what she endured and how she fully got to where she's at today, resulting in a dramatic onslaught -- fueled by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman -- that suffers from not bridging the right gaps from who she was and who she's become.

Destroyer takes place across two different timelines: the current era where Erin Bell is a very rough-around-the-edges detective working homicide cases, and in the past before the events that'd ultimately change her as a person. The two timelines are linked by a semi-psychotic criminal named Silas, positioned as an almost mythical arch-villain as he announces his continued existence to Erin through cryptic means. In the past, Erin's association with Silas (Toby Kebbel) and his drug-abusing criminal network showcase some of the lengths to which undercover agents will go to embed deeper into an outfit, the moral boundaries they're willing to bend or cross to maintain appearances. During the present, her attitude reveals what can happen when traumatic life events take their toll as she uses her methods to seek out Silas, before he reaches her. As the chronology jumps around, it paints a picture of her relationship with fellow undercover agent Chris (Sebastian Stan), as well as with her somewhat estranged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn).

As someone who usually isn't persuaded by Nicole Kidman's ability to transform into another character, instead usually just seeming like she's just slight tweaks of herself in every role, I was absolutely blown away at how deep she goes into Erin Bell and how unrecognizable she is for the entirety of Destroyer. Unkempt, scraggly, and inhumanely gaunt, her portrayal of Bell exists in that space of performances where you have to actively convince yourself that you're looking at a specific actor, elevating the transformative exhaustion and remorse that she's endured over the years. She's callous, but it's the kind of callous that indicates that there's heart and compassion underneath the harsh exterior, a testament to Kidman's thousand-yard stare glances and depleted body language as she procedurally lumbers between important contacts. She's a brave, talented detective whose disposition causes her to throw herself into harm's way with no care for her well-being, making for a compellingly unpredictable hero.

There's another side to Erin Bell, though, the one that exists in the past and made the mistakes that brought her to this point in the current era, and that's where Destroyer stumbles. As more gets revealed about how the younger Bell became entrenched with Silas' organized crime syndicate and built a relationship with fellow undercover agent Chris, the script from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi attempts to explore how she balances the self-sacrificial side of herself with a desire to embrace and appreciate life from a somewhat selfish perspective. It creates a unique dichotomy as she cements relationships, witnesses unsettling and manipulative behavior from the leader, and makes judgment calls about what she should ignore … and possibly participate in. The chronology grows screwy and disorienting, though, jumping between different steps in the past and the present to emphasize what's important to the thriller narrative at the time and conceal what's really important about the events surrounding Silas, with a twist at the end that's more of a fakeout than a deeper revelation.

Like The Invitation, director Kusama reaches her comfort zone in Destroyer with the bleakness of the human condition, the extent to which people will go for what they want/need and how that spreads out to the people around ‘em. Erin's methods, where she's willing to take herself to get the info she needs, lead to this being an uncomfortable button-pushing experience in certain aspects that exists to witness the absence of her boundaries, yet little more beyond that. A gap needs to be bridged here, to genuinely showcase how the earlier, more optimistic and ambitious version of Kidman's character morphs into the downtrodden one from the current era, and while some details lend themselves to interpretation about how she might've gotten there, they still seem like disparate entities. More needs to be known about that time in its middle, after tragedy and up till now, for Destroyer to come full circle the way it attempts to do in its final scene. Once the screen goes white at the end, though, the two Erin Bells seem like different people that have lots of time separating them for events to further shape ‘em , as Kusama's film hits those discomforting chords in her experiences without forming into a cohesive evolution.

Video and Audio:

Karyn Kusama understands that the physical transformation of Nicole Kidman into this gnarled entity would be one of the most entrancing visual aspects of Destroyer, so she plays around with closeups that capture the sharp jawline, weathered skin, eyebags, and salt-‘n-pepper hair of her character. The Blu-ray from Fox stunning captures every iota of those details, where both the harsh gauntness and the human beauty underneath shine through in the adept 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer. Subtle shades of exhaustion under the eyes and the slight shift in color to the lips offer impressively nuanced shifts in color gradation, while skin tones across the board are appropriately fleshy and sporting redness wherever necessary. As is often the case with Fox's Blu-rays, the contrast balance remains impeccable throughout, where both complicated shadows of a drug hideout and the glaring brightness of the sun are both appropriately vivid and aware of the details within. Little notable digital distortion, fine cinematic flow, crisp detail throughout … Destroyer is a harsh experience, but a robust one in HD.

Some might be surprised at how complex the sound design turned out to be in Destroyer, but those who've seen The Invitation have some understanding of the uniqueness that Karyn Kusama likes to bring to the sound atmosphere of her usually tense experiences. The energy of the soundtrack pulses and travels across the entire stage at many points throughout the film, staying crisp without ever drowning out any details. Sounds of bullets dropping onto a coffee table, curtains being pulled back in a dark room, and the quiet bustle of a crowd in a church show off the track's capabilities with intricate sonic elements, crisp and natural, while louder thuds of fistfights and guns popping off telegraph strong midrange impact and a healthy shot of bass response. Verbal clarity is most important here, though, as there are many quiet scenes of important conversations, and the tonal breadth in this Master Audio track captures the predominately midrange and low tones -- even Kidman's reaches lower alto rumble throughout -- and that results in an entirely successful 5.1 Master Audio track from Fox.

Special Features:

A pair of Audio Commentaries lead the way for the extras for Destroyer, one with Karyn Kusama and the other with the writers Phil Hay and Matt Mandredi -- instead of them recording one together like they did with The Invitation. Kusama once again delivers on being an enlightening, scholarly, yet comfortable participant, charting the process of making the film, discussing how Kidman and her supporting cast crossed uncomfortable boundaries, and how they captured beautiful urban cinematography on an "aggressive" budget. And when it comes to the really tense, off-putting scenes, Kusama gets her hands dirty and chats about why they're necessary and how they landed on the perfect mood for ‘em. Where Kusama gets a little more objective with the details, Hay and Mandred offer more personal and procedural insights, both from the perspective of writers and as general producers and filmmakers embedded in the creative process of this film. Despite them recording the tracks at the same time, there's a nice absence of direct overlap or only marginal bulletpoint overlap in their comments.

Rounding out the supplements, a nice nearly 20-minute featurette entitled Breakdown of an Anti-Hero (19:06), in which Nicole Kidman, Karyn Kusama, and writers Phil Hay and Matt Mandredi -- and Tatiana Maslany! -- chat about the tone of the project and the cyclical nature of the narrative's chronology. Spliced within the interviews are production photos, including a pretty cool before-after makeup collage of all the characters in their past and present forms, as well as behind-the-scenes shots of Kusama's directing tactics and the production folks collaborating on the right looks for certain facets … especially in downgrading Nicole Kidman from being a glowing movie star to a neglected, weathered detective. While standard in its rhythm, it's a solid watch with fresh insights into the film both verbal and visual.

Final Thoughts:

A tremendous, boundary-pushing performance from Nicole Kidman is the driving force of Destroyer, which ends up being an incredibly tense, bleakly expressive, but thematically disconnected and generally unpleasant crime-suspense film from Karyn Kusama. It reaches for depth in the remorse of one's past, the pursuit for vengeance in one's past, and the choices made at both points to obtain what one needs, and the willingness they're willing to go for that. There's something missing when looking at the underlying narrative any closer than that, though, as well as looking at how the writers yearned for this cyclical and cohesive experience that doesn't come together because the dual versions of Kidman's character can't find a meeting point that makes the transformation make as much sense as it should. Fox's Blu-ray is a tremendous way of watching Nicole Kidman's phenomenal performance, though, and the commentaries and near 20-minute featurette make this a great Rental … though certainly not an experience that I'd want to revisit anytime soon.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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