BFI London Film Festival ’18 Review: Despite a Strong Lead Performance, ‘Destroyer’ Fails To Make an Impact

Women on screen are so rarely allowed to be bad people. Redeemable qualities must be injected into even the most abhorrent of female characters, and this is only amplified when the character in question is a mother. Neglect of a child is a role that any fictional father may take up, but as a woman, the mother must ultimately soften even when her dedication is in doubt.

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Destroyer avoids these pitfalls in its depiction of detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a grizzled LAPD cop with a dark past and a difficult nature. Bell, in all aspects but her gender, is the stereotypical protagonist of every police procedural ever created. She has an awful relationship with her family, works alone wherever possible, and goes off the books to the dismay of her superiors — but through it all, she is exceptionally talented at what she does. It is fantastic, from a representation perspective, to see this familiar trope be transported into the body of an older woman, with all the wrinkles and blemished skin that comes with aging. Kidman is reliably incredible within the role, as piercing and intimidating as any lone wolf officer should be. Here we have a woman over the age of fifty, who is so often dismissed by the media, take centre stage — and she is permitted to be irredeemable.  

This trope, however, is one in a thousand that Destroyer obliviously embraces. The plot of the film is devoid of any originality: Bell, after an undercover mission gone wrong fifteen years earlier, must uncover the truth when a dangerous figure from her past emerges once more. The execution of this story is even more inane, as Bell trudges between various interchangeable secondary villains in order to hunt down her big bad. “Silas is back,” she announces dramatically at every available moment, mutating the film further and further into an unfortunate parody of the films it attempts to poorly emulate. Despite his apparent dramatic reputation, Silas is just as indistinguishable as the rest of Destroyer’s poorly developed antagonists  — with no motivation behind his crimes nor much evidence of his supposedly evil nature, he cannot retain a presence except as a plot device to limply push the story forward. 

Such an abysmal handling of the police procedural could have been forgivable if not for its complete overshadowing of the one element that Destroyer nails: the shattered mother-daughter relationship between Bell and sixteen-year-old Shelby. For every tiny footstep that Erin takes towards mending their bond, Shelby lurches back, a reflexive act of self-preservation after years of neglect and broken promises. Sickly sweet moments of recuperative effort are nowhere to be found in this emotional wasteland — Erin is an awful mother, and Shelby a despondent daughter. These characterizations are one of the few parts of the film that feel authentic, yet such a heavy tone makes the rest even more imbalanced in its accidental caricature. 

Considering this paradox, it has to be asked: if the serious elements of the film had been removed, could Destroyer have succeeded as a fun-but-average thriller? Perhaps so, but as it stands, the finished product is an awkward mishmash of fascinating characters and poorly-used tropes. Neither fun, nor effectively deep, Destroyer cannot succeed on either level, and instead leaves an overwhelming feeling of disappointment as its primary aftermath. 

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