Although 2018 included remarkable cinematic achievements by women, Karyn Kusama’s extraordinary, haunting neo-noir “Destroyer” is not likely to bask in the limelight of awards season. It’s probably more comfortable in the lower depths among the lost and the desperate.
“I think about violence a lot,” says Kusama (“Girlfight,” “The Invitation”), in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival with her husband, screenwriter Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi.
“I’m realizing that some filmmakers want to reflect a world they hope to see, and I feel like I want to reflect the world I think I’m in; I feel like we’re living in a very complicated, very chaotic and very challenging time,” she says.
Nicole Kidman gives an astonishing performance as Los Angeles police detective Erin Bell, a wrecked husk of a human whose life was changed by an undercover assignment among bank robbers nearly two decades earlier. Old wounds are ripped open after the discovery of a body connected to that time.
In an amazing display of makeup and transformation, Kidman plays Bell in two periods 20 years apart, not only looking different, but seeming different, carrying herself in ways that show just how she’s unraveled.
“It took a lot of planning,” says Kusama of the performance. “We needed to understand who she was from one time period to the next. We talked to Nicole about the character, the things that built her and the things that ruined her, and that led to choices about hair and makeup and costume and her posture.”
Hay and Manfredi, who worked with Kusama on the Charlize Theron sci-fi/action film “Aeon Flux” and the smart, slow-burn thriller “The Invitation,” cooked up the outline for “Destroyer” some 10 years ago.
But once they had the idea for the character, the story quickly fell into place.
“There is a newness to seeing a woman in this kind of role, but we always talked about making sure she wasn’t just a woman in man’s clothing, swapped out — that her issues and problems and the way she looks at herself and the way she looks at the world and the way that the world looks at her, is very specific to being female,” Hay says.
“Destroyer” is also a great Los Angeles movie, finding dread and fear in the city’s dark nooks and crannies. The movie makes insidiously effective use of light and shadow and a nerve-rattling sound design.
“You can’t be in L.A. for very long without suddenly saying, ‘My God that helicopter is still right above us! It’s not moving’ or ‘They’re cutting down a tree and it’s 6:30 in the morning!’” says Kusama. “It’s the superficial idea of L.A. as a paradise versus a much more chaotic and reckless reality.”
Making the movie, which involved dozens of locations, was a huge challenge, especially given its tight budget and just 33 days to film.
“There were a lot of big moves. There was never an easy or light day,” says Kusama. “It always felt like getting through this schedule was going to be like climbing a mountain.”
Though Kusama partly pays homage to L.A. crime films, she hopes “Destroyer” is relevant to modern times. While the main character is violent, she makes a move toward moral accountability, something Kusama says “is sorely lacking in our culture right now.”
“I feel like it is really important if I’m going to make movies that are violent, I want them to be responsibly considered and thought through,” she adds. “If there is a female perspective on that, I hope it gives us a bit of space to have a bigger conversation around it.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany
Written by: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes