Closing the loop

It’s the last of three pieces about films and time. There were some words about visions of an endlessly repeating day; some words about the immeasurable season of grief; and finally, some words on breaking the cycle – or closing the loop.

At the beginning of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (2018), a woman wakes in her car beneath an L.A. underpass. With the shuffling gait of the walking dead, she heads to the concrete banks of a storm drain, where a crime scene has been established. The detectives already present are dismayed at her arrival. “This is handled,” they tell her – but the woman, their colleague, insists on knowing the details.

A man has been shot – his blood has run into the drain and is darkening in the light of a perfect California day. There are stolen bills, stained purple from a dye pack, pinned beneath the body, and a distinctive tattoo of three fat black dots on the back of the victim’s neck.

The detectives give orders to uniformed cops while the woman scrutinises the corpse. Finally she rises from her haunches and stumbles away.

“What about if I know who did this?” she tells her colleagues.

Kusama’s film is ugly, violent, and close to perfect. It follows the broken detective, played by Nicole Kidman, as she takes revenge on the members of a gang of bank robbers, connected with those dyed dollar bills. We see Kidman’s character in flashback, sixteen years before, when she was undercover with the gang, and gradually come to understand that the undercover operation went grievously wrong, and that there is blood on the detective’s own hands.

Kusama shoots Los Angeles at its most anodyne and unappealing, all freeways and beige concrete. Any time there might be beauty, she looks the other way. Her camera hovers behind the detective’s battered sedan or over the shoulder of her black leather jacket as she prowls the city, piecing together the story behind the reappearance of those tainted banknotes. If Los Angeles becomes bland in its evil here, Kidman, as the agent of vengeance, is made flamboyantly ugly. Her eyes are pits, her teeth look as if they have been etched; she is corroded by the things for which she is trying to atone.

The film is as flat and hard as a pulp novel. It has the hypnotic drone of Palm Desert rock. When there’s violence, it’s not glamorous – though there’s a thrill in seeing this weary older woman, no matter what she suffers, getting back up and dishing out just desserts to the wicked.

Cleaning herself up in a restroom after being beaten by a wealthy criminal’s bodyguard, her eyes drift to the soapdish by the basin, sizing it up for use as a weapon, and our hearts rise as we realise what is about to happen. Later, standing with two young uniformed cops at the entrance of a bank which is in the middle of being robbed, she is asked whether they shouldn’t wait for backup. She looks along the barrel of her gun and leads the others through the door.

In an interview at the time of the film’s release, Kusama said:

“[…S]omething about the elemental qualities of watching a woman be put through a ringer and be beaten down literally and figuratively, and be so furious by it that she lashes out — that for me is emblematic of just being female at this point. You know, I don’t know a ton of women who watched the Kavanaugh hearings and didn’t just feel like it was a literal punch to the gut. Again. And this is what’s at stake. It is literally our lives. It is a sense of our humanness at stake, because we keep giving a free pass to these f—ers. Even though Erin has her moments of intense personal corruption and she earns her later shame for her actions, I identify with her fury and I get it.”

The brief outbursts of violence aren’t what drive the film or keep you watching, though. This movie is about atonement, and while Kidman’s detective can’t unwrite the past, she can try to set things straight with her teenage daughter, conceived around the time of the failed police operation, and now running right off the rails. In dive bars and flyblown cafes and a hospital emergency ward, the detective cajoles, threatens, and begs her daughter not to follow her own self-destructive path.

It’s these conversations which lift Destroyer‘s hardboiled narrative into a different league, and which remind us what it is to watch a woman embody this character of the world-weary cop who isn’t afraid to break the rules any more: it wouldn’t be the same movie – the same galaxy – to watch a man, a father, in this role.

In the last of these conversations between the detective and her daughter, the teenage girl evokes another memory, of her earliest childhood, when she and her mother got lost in the wilderness as a snowstorm began to roll in.

“I felt safe, because I was with you,” she says. “I knew that you were strong, and that you would protect me. But at the same time – why were we out there? I kept saying that: ‘We shouldn’t be here, why did you take us here?’ We were out there all alone for no reason, like a couple of animals.”

The conversation dips into something primal about the urge we feel to protect our children, and the ferocity of the survival instinct – but it also reminds us how often our lives are like a prison we have made for ourselves; a maze with insurmountably high walls which we have been quietly constructing one panel at a time, until it seems almost impossible for us to escape.

The final minutes of the film seem to close the loop of the detective’s journey; we’re returned to that crime scene in the storm drain which opened the picture. The detective has assembled an envelope full of evidence and documentation which will let her partner understand what has happened. Battered and beaten, she is almost certainly dying.

Yet the film also allows for another reading, where the detective is trapped in an endless cycle, and when she blinks her eyes in the film’s closing moments, she will find herself back in its opening scene, running the maze of her life once again. (Something similar happens in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, where Oscar Isaac’s hapless jerk of a folk singer finds himself beaten up at both the beginning and end of the movie as punishment for the same cruel heckle; is he trapped in some kind of purgatory?).

We want to believe that the detective has achieved her goal, has set her daughter onto a better path than her own, and sent the wicked on to their final judgment; but perhaps we weren’t here to see a journey out of darkness into the light. Perhaps we were only witnesses to a neverending process of corrosion, and the ways in which the desperation and bile of a bad deed uncorrected can become a weapon and a driving force for moral accountability.

Reviews of Karyn Kusama’s film on its release were mixed. Some found that the movie dragged. Some unfavourably compared the cold, unglamorous gunfight at the film’s midpoint with Michael Mann’s Heat, a heist movie playing an entirely different game. Journalists were at once obsessed with Kidman’s uglification and derogatory about the make-up job which ages her into the dessicated form of the vengeful detective.

It’s not that the film is perfect – the fateful decision Kidman’s character makes to trigger everything that happens is slightly undersold, as is the romance she has with her undercover partner – but each criticism seems slightly wide of the mark. Too pulpy. Too slow. Make-up’s too much.

Among the film’s final seconds is a vision of Kidman, young again, trudging determinedly through the snow of her daughter’s memory with the child on her back. Strong, sure to protect her, but also deeply damaged and culpable, the very cause of the jeopardy they find themselves in.

Reading those critics and seeing them miss the mark, I wonder if our culture was simply afraid to let a woman like that have her time on the big screen.

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