Monday, February 11, 2019

Dirty Harriet


What we have is a movie essentially broken at its very core, depending on what you think its core is: its story (the broken part), or its lead performance (the pretty good part), but either way not exactly demanding that you spend your time on it.

Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

Spoiler alert: moderate

Destroyer is a film in a struggle to justify its own existence, and doesn't really succeed, probably making itself worse in a lot of ways than if it had just owned up to the fact that it doesn't have much of a reason for being, and simply been the best cops 'n' robbers film it could be without needing to grasp at anything more.  And yet I do almost appreciate it, the same way I almost like it, because when Karyn Kusama pumps up the levels of directorial pretension to or possibly even past eleven, the film is somehow at its most energetic and enjoyable, even though it's also at its most flailing and annoying.  This is because when she does so, Destroyer's at least being flailing and annoying in interesting ways, rather than being dully competent in ways that you could see on TNT or USA any time you wanted just by turning on your TV, assuming that you still have cable and that those channels still exist.

The plot barely needs to be related, and in the telling feels a lot more like a premise still being worked out than a chain of events that feed causally into each other, but here goes: Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a damaged cop deep into what looks like almost two decades' worth of alcoholism, self-loathing, and leather jacket-wearing, and we meet her as she barges her way into a murder scene that seems to have a deeply personal connection to her past.  This impression turns out to be correct when she receives a dye-stained c-note in the mail, a memento of a heist pulled by a gang led by the mysterious Silas (Toby Kebbell) many years ago, in which she participated as an undercover cop alongside FBI agent, um, Chris (Sebastian Stan, and, no, Destroyer isn't big on extraneous detail, or even non-extraneous detail, such as "why did Silas send Erin this token of their past, anyway? that was stupid").  We get the sense that not everything Erin's been a part of has been on the up and up, and her newest mission is no exception, as she tracks Silas down through a series of leads that also serves as a guided tour to what happened that fateful day so long ago.

So that could be cool; we are certainly not down on pure genre here.  But, as I said, Destroyer struggles, and applies several novelties (of varying actual novelty) to make itself worthwhile.  The first, of course, is that if this were a TV show, it'd be an especially prestigious one based on this cast, even if in practice it wastes almost everybody in it inside sketched-out smears of characters—with one enormous exception, Destroyer being every inch a Kidman star vehicle.  It's the kind of leading role that's almost off-putting in how transparently it's been designed to get Kidman an Oscar, and when you hear she leapt out of the shadows to demand Kusama offer her the part, you're not terribly surprised.  Destroyer takes Kidman and subjects her to the standard beautiful actress uglification treatment, and is a technical showcase for conceptually questionable makeup that makes her look more like a zombie or a movie cancer victim than hard-drinking, self-loathing, etc.  Meanwhile, as the film slides in and out of the past, it becomes a technical showcase for de-aging makeup, too, alongside Kidman's surgeons and to some extent Kidman's own innate mutant healing factor, as well as a technical showcase for Kidman's actual acting, as Destroyer reveals itself as an exercise for her to play two extremely distinct versions of the same woman, separated in time by 16 or 17 years, and for her to play a character who, depending on the scene, is either at least fifteen years younger than she is (and looks twenty-five), or her actual age (while looking ten years older).  On the merits, it's a good exercise, if not entirely great: she definitely overdoes it in various ways, though the problems are almost entirely down to a script that's way too much of a mess on the level of character and motivation and basic sense-making to be able to prop up any of its performances, even the rather talented one we get in the center.

Still, you get a lot out of Kidman's efforts, particularly with Kidman's present-day Erin, all bleary eyes that contain nothing but a sort of grasping attachment to the things she wants to honor but has no idea how to (her daughter, to some degree her ex-husband, her then-partner), altogether a solid evocation of a woman who realizes that not giving a fuck about anything, especially herself, has given her the power to change a few things to her liking, even if it's the kind of power that by its nature can't last very long.  And it's contrasted nicely with the Erin of the past, who is very much Kidman Doing a Kidman as you might've found her doing in the 1990s (fittingly enough), with the same tics and actorly tricks (like that cute, slightly open-mouthed smile, where she looks like she's feigning pleased surprise) that served her equally well through roles that used her charms straight as well as roles that used her charms as a demon's lure.

But to the extent the rest of the cast can even try, Destroyer has no use for them, and we've actually already alluded to what I suppose is its biggest problem: it's basically two whole movies, one of which is Point Break (albeit more in the register of Blue Velvet), told in disconnected flashback, and one of which is The Gauntlet (albeit more in the register of Bad Lieutenant), that takes place in the present, and neither movie really gets the attention it needs to thrive, while both movies are, in fact, disagreeable and sullen versions of the movies they most resemble.  The present-day stuff works reasonably well, so long as it's purely in reference to itself, though even then it's hardly perfect: it gets some mileage out of the spectacle of the drunken bad cop being a woman for a change, but we already have "Harry Callahan as a physical and psychological wreck" with the guy who played Harry Callahan, and The Gauntlet did not spend nearly such an inordinate amount of time reinforcing that not only is its Callahan stand-in awful and self-destructive, but also completely incapable of basic bad movie cop competence.  We eventually wind up at a place where Erin can mete out some nasty extralegal justice—and even though this is the turning point of the film, it's staged oddly (if you're throwing someone out of your house, and they puke on your floor, do you direct them to the bathroom, or do you just keep throwing them out of your house?)—but, in any event, it's a pretty hard hour-long slog getting there, and there are things promised by a title as grandiose as Destroyer that Destroyer simply has zero interest in paying off.

Explicitly, in fact: Kusama has said she didn't care about the action.  It strikes me as a strange film to want to make, if that was your attitude going into it, and for all that Destroyer has the feel of a Michael Mann movie—something I dig about it quite a bit—and for all that it often looks pretty great, with unquestionable skill in its compositions and with uncomfortably bright daylight cinematography that both sets the scene (Los Angeles) and reinforces Erin's hungover perception of a hostile world, it simply does not have an abiding sense of poetry to its tale of a hard woman blasted by time and violence.  Also, if I ever rob a bank, I'm bringing a fake police shield; apparently you flash those things and no questions are asked, even if you're carrying a decidedly non-standard-issue MP5.  Of course, the fact that this stuff is in the movie in the first place suggests Kusama maybe ought to have cared more about how it gets used.

It probably doesn't help that far too much of Destroyer is spent on Erin trying to bully her way back into her daughter's life; it's also the thing that reminds me most of a TV show, specifically SVU, which decided to ruin itself a few years back by giving Liv a son and spending a lot of airtime on filial issues that wouldn't be interesting even if they didn't misapprehend the fundamental appeal of the stories SVU tells.  Anyway, it's a subplot that evidently exists to provide "heart" (or at least some humanizing quality) and winds up being populated by sketched-out caricatures of the most boring kind, named "problem teen" and "skeevy statutory rapist," respectively, who feel even less like real people than everybody else in the movie.  And that's saying something, because everybody is a caricature, even Erin.  But the most endemic issues in this regard lie with the flashback material, which takes its characters out of a different kind of movie altogether—possibly even a fun one—but which has no space to explain the nature of this weird gang of bank robbers that behaves more like a cult, nor time to develop any real relationship between Erin and Chris, who manage to achieve a basic level of emotional believability solely in their final exchange, not exactly an ideal situation.  As with Widows, the other pseudo-arty Oscar-hopeful heist movie of 2018, you get a feeling of what Heat would look like if you cut it down to two hours: incomprehensible and bad.

However, Widows' biggest sin was being merely (well, "merely") overstuffed, and didn't have to deal with the damage that two fully separate movies smooshed together would do to one another, and Destroyer careens out of control rather badly on account of it.  Its bipartite structure actively and ceaselessly works against it, with those flashbacks doing precious little to inform the present and the present tending to explain what's going to happen in the flashbacks before it ever happens; narratively, it's a deeply unsurprising film.  Destroyer has sometimes been described as "a murder mystery," and given that Kusama is absolutely not done with her structural fuckery yet, I suppose it must, in its dubious way, fancy itself as one.  That implicates the ending, and, at the very least, I found myself impressed by it: Destroyer seizes at the mystic in its final five or so minutes, with a sequence of concluding images that at last does reward the peformance Kidman is giving, if perhaps not the viewer.  But I was moved, maybe against my will, by a denouement that is so try-hard in every possible way that I think I was sort of bludgeoned into surrendering to it, a film student assault that seems like Kusama had a checklist of cliches and she managed to hit every last one, on top of a sub-Hitchcockian kind of fuck-you twist that theoretically lands Destroyer's themes on your head like a ton of bricks, and in practice does little beyond exploiting film language to what ought to be a truly insufferable degree, essentially the cinematic equivalent of whispering, "An asshole says what?" before loudly chortling at the response.  Yet what can I say?  It almost worked.  Not enough to redeem a film that has only a few redemptive elements otherwise, but enough to keep me from hating the two hours I spent with it.

Score: 5/10


  1. I also watched this this weekend, so I had to comment. I think comparing the film to Dirty Harry is a mistake - I compare it to French Connection. Whenever there was a plot hole, I reminded myself that it was so great to see a FEMALE "cop on the edge" story. It seems like that was Kusama's main concern, if your quotes above are any indication. When you think of Angel Heart, Point Blank, To Live & Die in LA, and other classic "existential" male crime odysseys with anti-heroes, is this film's story any worse in its plotting? By the way, I do agree with you on all the plot and character issues - I don't like Kidman as an actress, she had zero chemistry with Sebastian Stan, and her bad decision 17 years earlier seemed totally unmotivated by anything. Maybe let's think of this as an existential female cop story, and how is that different in interesting ways from the classics I mentioned above? I appreciate that your reviews will often give a rating number that differs from your personal enjoyment of the film. I think Destroyer deserves an 8, despite its failings (which are indeed frustrating because it could have been fixed).

    1. Part of the reason I went to Dirty Harry for the title was that it allowed a pun that didn't involve "I barely know her!" but the other part was that Kidman's performance really did remind me a LOT of Eastwood in The Gauntlet (which always struck me as Eastwood's parody of Dirty Harry, or at least some kind of over-the-top pastiche), in that both of them are so aggressively, pathetically dysfunctional that it's dubious that they even still have their jobs. Maybe that's a bad connection or one that suggests I need to see more bad cop movies, but that's the one it made for me. (In any event, Kidman makes Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel seem like a solid citizen, Can You Ever Forgive Me? being another "let's put the actress through a wringer of gritty realism till she comes out cartoonishly gross" effort of 2018, just a much better one.)

      Obviously, the similarities between Destroyer and The Gauntlet pretty much end at similar performances as a drunk, since The Gauntlet turns decisively toward action-redemption. Perhaps I'm being slightly unfair to want this from Destroyer in addition to its actual goals. That said, I like it better than The French Connection, though I always get yelled at when I say I don't care for that film's combo of nihilism and naturalism one bit (if anything, it's my least favorite of D'Antoni's little laconic-cops-and-car-chases trilogy, and I don't love any of them; the only one I enjoy at all is the one with the lowest reputation, The Seven Ups, possibly because it is a straight cop thriller).

      Anyway, I take the point, even if the "female bad cop" doesn't really seem to take too many different roads, not that I'd necessarily want it to. And the "bad cop/bad criminal (same diff) drowns in the past" thing is, as you say, a separate subgenre, though a closely allied one. Either way, it is the best thing Destroyer has going for it generally. This may be another less-than-apt comparison, but it's kinda like Drive without the emotional and symbolic hooks, but retaining the kind of doomy mood. ("Mood" being why my thoughts went to Michael Mann, too, though his movies usually feature more adherence to moral codes and have happier endings.)

      As for my scores: I dunno if they do? I actually try not to let them, which is why I've given some extremely dumb movies some very high scores. I was on the fence between a 5 and 6 here.