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Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is an LA noir about demons, gangs, and revenge

As Hollywood undergoes its own era of destruction, Kusama’s message is like a clarion cry in the night

We hear a cracking police radio and are greeted by two bloodshot eyes, familiar ones. They once belonged to Nicole Kidman, but not anymore. With ashen skin, pitiless wrinkles, and a ratty shag haircut, she’s unrecognisable. It’s something to quickly become accustomed to: Kidman the movie star doesn’t show up once. Instead, we get police detective Erin Bell, former undercover investigator for the FBI. She’s lived hard by the look of things, but it’s only just the beginning. Bell limps haggardly onto the scene of a grisly murder in the desolate, riverside Bowtie Project in L.A. “You’re dragging anchor,” the lead officer gnashes. Bell scoffs at him, under her alcoholic breath. We’re in serious genre territory, and Kusama did not come to fuck around.

“We’re in serious genre territory, and Kusama did not come to fuck around”

The legendary pop cinema director Roger Corman begat John Sayles and John Sayles begat Kusama: she started her career as Sayles’s assistant before breaking out with her first feature film, Girlfight. That movie launched Michelle Rodriguez’s career, sending her the world of Fast and Furious. (She’s been at the Toronto International Film Festival with another genre adventure, Steve McQueen’s Widows).

It also began a rollercoaster of a ride for Kusama, who found herself embraced and then rejected by the Hollywood studios: directing the stunted live-action sci-fi comic book adaptation Æon Fluxwhich executives at Paramount had recut to disastrous effect, and then Jennifer’s Body, a mid-range horror comedy that has matured into a cult classic. With her most recent film, The Invitation, Kusama pulled off an impressive Hail Mary, turning her lowest-budgeted project to date into a Netflix buzz movie that reintroduced audiences to her dark and tenacious grip on the joyride of fear. From accolades to accidents and back to the driver’s seat, Kusama – who scored prizes from Sundance, Cannes, and the National Board of Review at the outset of her filmography – was knocked down to climb her way back up, an apt metaphor for the director whose definitive film was about a female boxer. Definitive, that is, until now. With Destroyer, Kusama has arrived at her white-knuckle peak. Here’s hoping it’s the beginning of a mid-career renaissance. And Nicole Kidman knows a thing or two about that.

“Some will inevitably find it over-the-top, for precisely the reasons that make it so thrillingly fun”

Indeed, we’ve been living in blissful Kidmania the past two years, as the cinematic icon has offered up an embarrassment of riches for us to devour. It seemingly came to a head last year when Kidman released LionThe BeguiledTop Of The Lake: China Girl, How To Talk To Girls At PartiesThe Killing of a Sacred Deerand the phenomenon Big Little Lies in quick succession. But it’s with Destroyer that Kidman pulls her most impressive act of immersion yet, taking on the trope of a grisly, violent detective with visceral aplomb, matching Kusama’s potboiler pacing punch-for-punch, with a few pistol whippings thrown in for good measure.

The story is at once elliptical and unwavering, cutting back and forth between present and past, as Bell doggedly pursues the kingpin of a burglary ring she once infiltrated, seeking revenge for a mysterious Palm Springs heist gone wrong. As the earlier narrative drifts toward this terrifying climax, we begin to follow the fuse from both ends, even as both narratives pummel forward headlong.

Disparate elements increasingly show themselves as deliberate: the estranged teenage daughter who terrorizes Bell with her much-older boyfriend, that limp that Bell walks with, the dye-pack-stained cash that floats in and out of the action. With elements of James Ellroy’s telegrammatic L.A. crime fiction as much as classic Hollywood noir, Kusama builds a world where the characters are as shifty as their physicalities – and nearly everyone gets a full-body transformation from point A to B and back again. To call it hard-boiled would be an understatement: it’s practically deep-fried, eliciting laughter at some of its most grim and glowering moments the way that all the best genre cinema does. Some will inevitably find it over-the-top, for precisely the reasons that make it so thrillingly fun.

“Kusama has experienced destruction in her own right and come out the other side. Destroyer proves she’s still the master of women kicking ass”

If you’re going to cook up a detective movie about bank robbers, violence, murder, and revenge, you have to be willing to take it all the way, and Kusama commands the material in a style that is as artful as it is refreshingly no-holds-barred. That she arrives at one of the most effective white-knuckle suspense movies of the year is a testament to her tenacity and her uncompromising vision as a stylist of ironically macho female-centric scorchers.

Eighteen years after Girlfight, Kusama has experienced destruction in her own right and come out the other side. Destroyer proves she’s still the master of women kicking ass. As Hollywood undergoes its own era of destruction and new female narratives finally start dragging anchor into the sunlight, Kusama’s message is like a clarion cry in the night: Wake up! It’s her time now.