You don’t see many Hollywood films about women in law enforcement. Probably because for so many decades it was a male-dominated profession with limited opportunities for women beyond clerical duties. Yet the major studios positively revel in showing men as complicated, morally compromised characters working the gritty streets to solve crimes and bringing criminals to justice. Fortunately, the gender table has turned at last, albeit ever so slightly. Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama, features a nearly unrecognizable Nicole Kidman as troubled LAPD detective, Erin Bell.
It is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising the film wasn’t produced by a major studio, but by the independent film company, Annapurna. It seems highly unlikely a major studio would risk greenlighting a film featuring a deeply conflicted female character in a grim, depressing story. Of course, they have no problem depicting female detectives in bikinis and tons of hairspray a la Charlie’s Angels. And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with showing a female detective as glamorous, and beautiful, but perhaps a more serious portrayal demonstrating the very real toll such a profession takes on a woman’s psyche is warranted as well.
In Destroyer, Kusama immediately establishes this film will bear no resemblance to the action-comedy films studios usually make in those rare instances they portray women in these types of positions (i.e. THE HEAT, SPY). Kidman portrays Detective Erin Bell as no one’s angel in this harrowing portrait of a big city detective hell-bent in seeking revenge against members of a gang she infiltrated while working undercover. Though self-destructive and caught in a downward spiral, she exhibits great power in her descent. Her inner turmoil and personal demons have left her emotionally damaged and mentally ravaged. Kidman does a masterful job in portraying this complicated woman who never loses the empathy of the audience despite her deep flaws which encompass a capacity for abusive, violent behavior. As women we are often unfairly judged by our appearance, and Kidman deserves great credit for taking a risk and leave the safety of her usual glamorous Hollywood roles for this more vulnerable appearance. She is haggard, and aged beyond her years the way such a woman would feasibly look after years of emotional trauma and alcohol abuse. One of her colleagues remarks to her, “You look terrible.” She responds, “I had a rough night.” Even an ex-convict she once took down is taken aback by her appearance declaring, “Jesus, you look old.” Destroyer alternates between the present and her early years with the LAPD; the physical transformation is both stunning and wrenching.
The focus of the storyline is her pursuit of justice against a violent gang who are at least partially responsible for her downward spiral, but this film is also a serious character study. Attention is given to her troubled personal life which is beset with feelings of guilt and regret. She has a strained relationship with her resentful teenage daughter who lives with her ex-husband. She is an alcoholic who makes no attempt to control her drinking. She engages in shocking acts to obtain information and threatens suspects, telling one, “I will kill you. It will be easy for me because I don’t care what happens to me.”
This type of heavy-handed, lawless behavior from a city detective is reminiscent of classic films such as The French Connection, and Training Day. In those films, the morally challenged officer is always portrayed as a male character. Law enforcement is an occupation where the temptation exists to do away with the rules and the “niceties” of constitutional protections; I am not implying this is remotely admirable behavior from anyone who has taken an oath to protect and serve the public. But it is a positive step to show a fully fleshed female character who is in a position of authority where she must grapple with very real conflict. The integration of women into powerful positions in law enforcement has been a positive change in our society where the presence of women have enhanced the ability of the police to solve crimes. Women now comprise a significant percentage of law enforcement officers and at some point films need to reflect this reality. Although Destroyer is a grim cinematic study of a female detective, it is also a significant triumphant it was made at all.
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