You can’t just stamp ‘noir’ on something and make it a noir. Not now, not ever.

Potentially the most mischaracterised genre, Destroyer, even had it succeeded in the tradition, would still have done the form little favour.

Hardboiled detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) stumbles, as hardboileds so often do, onto a murder scene. Instigating a chain of events that recalls, by flashback(s), a traumatic event in her life some seventeen years past, Bell sets herself after the elusive Silas (Toby Kebbell), in hiding since that fateful day oh so long ago.

Grim, worn and drenched with make-up, Kidman’s aged visage is unlike that of any recent roles and regretfully dissonant from all else around her. For in this noir thriller she is the only one acting decidedly noir; everyone else is out there just getting on with 2019 and reacts predictably surprised when the pointedly anachronistic Bell say confronts her daughter or her offspring’s no-good boyfriend.

Sure, she’s livid, hell-bent and could be just about any 21st century on-screen ‘not-by-the-book loaded-gun hell-or-high-water do-it-alone’ copper who’s a just little (it’s not a little) too violent with suspects. Except Bell doesn’t do things like anyone we hope we’d never run into in this day and age; drifting between sentences, staring unflinchingly and launching into gunfights as if Philip Marlowe might just strut round the corner.

It’s distracting, wholly inconsistent with near every other creative direction in the film and would be laughable had transpiring events not been so dour.

On the matter of direction, and too cinematography, rarely has there been such a haphazard approach to rendering a noir.  A style regularly distinguished by a palette and atmosphere irrespective of whether plots transpire in day or night or are shed with light or darkness, while Hawks for instance preferred the latter Polanski made one of cinema’s greats by placing J. Gittes in the inescapably dazzling sunshine of L.A.

Here, we jump instantaneously between rain-drenched midnight stake-outs, blindingly bright middays and a neon-filtered diner that might have Nicholas Winding-Refn raising at least one eyebrow. Very possibly seeking inspiration from more than one of the Director’s works, Destroyer’s conclusion morphs inexplicably and without precedence into the surreal and symbolic. Above even all else the film’s most blatant tonal shift, it is only made worse by an immediately preceding and painstakingly obvious figurative interplay between light and darkness involving a car.  

Plot-wise, there is very little that can be deduced by Kidman’s Detective or us as she hops between witnesses, the narrative opting to litter breadcrumbs for Bell to pick up rather than permitting her or us to, as might naturally have been more compelling, fit too many pieces together.  When the revelation about the events years past does arrive it is with a thud and no new information to digest or reckon with.

What could very easily have been and was set up earlier as a key twist is revealed suddenly in a scene in a bathroom during a flashback, denying what could have been an emotive if still hackneyed and tried story beat. On the matter of frustrating storytelling, a narrative gimmick that reveals itself near the conclusion offers us nothing fresh, elaborating neither on any character nor plot point in any meaningful way.

Basic character beats too make little sense, including the lack of investigation of the contents of a bag and the inexplicable carriage of the bulky evidence of one robbery to another robbery. Yes this is marginally a character rather than plot-driven drama, and Kidman and co-star Sebastian Stan are reliably excellent, though we are imparted frustratingly little about any part not filled by an actor above the marquee.

Kebbell, ostensibly playing some Bodhi-like figure transplanted here from Point Break into what sets itself up as a serious drama, is meant to be some charismatic centre to the robbers’ universe/cult-like leader. Owning the best and only really good extended sequence in the film as his Silas eggs an accomplice to play Russian Roulette, to buy into his world we really needed to get to know his ringleader and all we are allowed are snippets from randomly delivered and often fleeting flashbacks.

Those looking for noir had better look elsewhere.

Destroyer is in cinemas now

Destroyer on Film Fight Club