Destroyer: New Type of Heroine?

Director Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is a gritty crime thriller starring Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman (The Hours) as a hardened detective worn down to the nub by the rigors of her job and the aftermath of an undercover FBI sting gone horribly wrong.

Haunted by guilt and loss, when an old nemesis, played by Toby Kebbell resurfaces, she becomes hell bent on finding him, seeing it as her one last shot at redemption.

The film is produced by Fred Berger (La La Land) and the tense, emotionally compelling screenplay was written by writer/producers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (The Invitation, crazy/beautiful).

Destroyer’s stellar cast includes Sebastian Stan (Avengers: Infinity War, I, Tonya), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) and Bradley Whitford (The Post, Get Out). Annapurna Pictures will distribute the film theatrically on December 25, 2018.

In Karyn Kusama’s riveting new crime thriller Destroyer, the receipt of an ink-marked bill in the office mail propels veteran LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) on a perilous journey to find the murderer and gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), and perhaps to finally make peace with her tortured past.

Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also produced the film alongside Fred Berger, the richly complex odyssey through the underbelly of Los Angeles and nearby desert communities reunites Bell with members of the criminal gang she once joined as an undercover FBI agent; an assignment which ended disastrously and has taken a heavy emotional and physical toll on her life.

One by one, she tracks down the gang leader’s former cohorts including Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’ onetime lover and current errand girl. During her obsessive search, Bell is flooded with memories of her undercover days with Silas’ gang and her involvement in a bank heist gone tragically wrong. Especially painful are her recollections of Chris (Sebastian Stan), the FBI partner with whom she had a brief but meaningful romance.

But Bell’s problems are not confined to the past. She is increasingly at odds with her rebellious sixteenyear-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), from whom she is estranged. Her clumsy attempts to reach out to Shelby consistently backfire, exacerbating Bell’s overwhelming sense of hopelessness and loss.

As she hones in on Silas, the demons of her compromised past emerge, and Bell must come to terms with her own culpability in what happened before she can entertain any hope of redemption.

The script for the action crime thriller was born over an extended period of time. For several years, while also working on various other projects, writer-producers Phil Hay and his longtime coscenarist Matt Manfredi began compiling ideas for a screenplay based on their mutual love of crime movies and their interest in Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods and populations. “What excited me,” says Manfredi, “was writing a novelistic movie with an emphasis on character, a style reminiscent of classic 1970s cop films like Serpico and The French Connection.”

The central character is a loner cop with many secrets both professional and personal. “It evolved into a multilayered story that took place in the main character’s past and present,” says Hay. Technically speaking the concept presented logistical challenges, given the story’s multiple time frames and the fact that “even the past sequences are not necessarily chronological,” Manfredi observes. “It took a while for us to get the plot details to where they were seamless and not confusing. We stepped away from the project several times to clear our heads and then came back to it.”

As they refined the story, the pair were inspired by Karyn Kusama who was already on board to direct. “For years, Phil and Matt had been discussing a crime story that explored patterns and circularity in both its plot and themes,” says Kusama. “In between, there would be an examination into the conscience of the character. Once the three of us started talking about it together, we collectively realized that this needed to be a story about a woman. That was the spark. Erin Bell was born out of that.”

Bell is not be simply a troubled male cop presented as a woman. “As always, Matt and I seek to create characters who are living lives that exist outside of the plot of the movie and whose problems are unique to them,” says Hay. What emerged was a complex, time-shifting story that is in part “about a woman coming to terms with how she’s lived her life and trying to find some way to move forward,” says Hay. “But it’s also a crime thriller about someone who, when she was younger,
was placed in a dangerous situation she couldn’t handle and has been living with the repercussions ever since. Additionally, it’s a manhunt about a woman who is on an obsessive and destructive mission, the consequences of which are slowly unveiled.”

Bell can be an unpleasant, uncompromising person, often to her own detriment. One challenge was finding the emotional core in a character for whom the audience might not automatically feel a great deal of empathy, says the screenwriters. “Erin’s constantly breaking rules. She’s a bad partner and a bad mom but even though she messes up, she keeps trying,” says Manfredi. “There’s something so relatable about her persistence even though, with all the best intentions, her plans often go awry. We tried to draw her in a charismatic way, as a force of nature, so that even when she’s doing things that are questionable, you keep hoping that in the end, she will be able to heal this wound that happened long ago.”

Kusama was fascinated that Hay and Manfredi had introduced a mother-daughter dynamic into the story, something she’d never witnessed in the context of a police crime thriller. “It felt very different to me, very fresh, a kind of aesthetic sweet spot that expanded the genre in terms of emotion and character,” she says. The personal elements of Bell’s story transcend the Hollywood fantasy of the lone-wolf law enforcement figure.

“It’s a rare thing to find someone who doesn’t have any personal attachments outside the job,” according to Kusama. “I was fascinated by the additional complication of Erin, who is in the midst of a manhunt, having a struggle with her daughter from whom she is estranged. We can see that, while she is competent at her job, she’s also kind of a mess. Her life seems to be unraveling. I thought it was wonderful that Phil and Matt just let her be a mess and took us down that rabbit hole. Perhaps some of us will see a version of ourselves in her plight.”

While the story is laced with characters whose motives are sometimes as circumspect as Bell’s, the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding desert communities have a co-starring role as well, say Kusama and the screenwriters. The environment, through which Bell pursues the bad guy, tries to repair her broken mother-daughter relationship and wrestles with her personal demons enhances the story, giving it a specificity and unique flavor.


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