What is neo-noir, that genre of film seemingly inspired by the classic Hollywood run of mannered crime pictures from the 40s and 50s? It’s an impossible question to answer — if pushed, though, I’d offer the memorable and facetious sentence about pornography coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”
So while I’m not going to attempt a definition of neo-noir, certainly not here and certainly not ever, I will suggest that one motif central to any movie that might come under the genre’s shadow is the question of identity. Science has revealed the expanse of the cosmos and the infinity of time. Liberal humanism has dispensed with the silly notion that there is only one way a human society can work, live and pray. Stability is the one thing we no longer possess. The one handhold left to us is freedom. Choice, what a person chooses or doesn’t choose to do in the course of a day, is the only thing that gives an individual’s life meaning, And it is through meaning that we claim our identity.
Which is why I’d like to enter Karyn Kusama’s latest film Destroyer into the body of work we might call neo-noir. Like Kusama’s earlier movies, Destroyer spins an identifiable genre piece — boxing, sci-fi, horror — around a compelling female protagonist. Drawing on that most basic of noir stories (a protagonist trapped in the consequences of past choices; it shares spiritual roots with the archetype Out of the Past), Destroyer also employs the patchwork narrative of The Killers, and the circular nightmare of D.O.A. and Double Indemnity. Kusama skillfully reinterprets the stylistics of classic film noir — mannered lighting, unusual camera angles and a bleak, existential tone — to explore the genre’s timeless and heady themes: obsession, loneliness, guilt and (most of all) identity, all the while maintaining the feel of a 21st century crime drama.
Destroyer’s plot is easy to summarize. After discovering the body of a man bearing a familiar tattoo, LAPD Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) comes to believe that a gang of violent bank robbers is in the city. Her worry is both personal and professional. Sixteen years ago, alongside FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan) she infiltrated the gang, though it’s quickly hinted the operation ended in something other than a success. Being the cop that she is, Bell decides to flush out the group’s leader, a man named Silas (Toby Kebbell.)
Bell’s solo hunt through Los Angeles is a pretty standard policer. But as she goes about poring over old evidence and interrogating Silas’ past associates, Destroyer becomes anything but standard. Early on, the film establishes its neo-noir cred through Kusama’s expressive use of camera and location. Gone are noir’s traditional shadows and knife-blade lighting. This is modern L.A., long disabused of the idea it exists in the land of comforting, endless summers. Instead, in scene after scene, the sun blazes like a melanoma flare into the camera lens, blinding the viewer as surely as darkness would in earlier noir.
Destroyer also shuns the city’s recognizable landmarks — the Hollywood sign, nighttime shots of the Valley and the beaches are never glimpsed. Nothing grounds the film in the familiar. Destroyer plays across anonymous tract housing, low-slung bars, storefront churches and faceless shopping plazas all strung along monotonous freeways.
A chain of seamless flashbacks further complicates Destroyer’s sense of place and order. The opening shot is a closeup of Kidman, heavily prostheticized and made to look as wind-blasted and sun-scorched as the surrounding desert. Her cheeks are lined with miniature arroyos. Shadowed and puffy, Bell’s eyes carry the baggage of a hard life.
In contrast, Erin Bell of the flashbacks is a fresh-faced LA Sheriff’s deputy. Her wrinkles and skin spots have been replaced by a spray of youthful freckles and she has the alert gaze of person still unbruised by life. Her first scene with FBI agent Chris is full of swagger, one-upmanship and heavy flirting. It’s not giving anything away to say they end up lovers.
The difference is stark and terrifying. Who is this person? How did she get here? It’s easy to imagine Bell wondering that as well while staring into her nightly glass of whiskey.
Sharon Willis posits in High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film that movies show the masculine body as “… a machine of destruction and as a constantly eroded and mutilated flesh.” Her discussion is particular to Lethal Weapon and Die Hard but readily applies to other films. The male body is the object which moves through a narrative, taking action and creating tension and drama. It’s also the object the plot acts on. Stories of film literally play across a man’s physical shell. Women, on the other hand, are static creatures meant to be ogled. Laura and Vertigo, two noir films bookending the classic cycle, offer cases in point.
When Destroyer premiered, much was made of Kidman’s appearance. It was called many things — brave, a stunt or absurd. I’ll admit that, at first, the aged Erin Bell didn’t look quite natural, more how an overzealous makeup artist might imagine the face of rough-living woman. The word “zombie” came to mind. But now I think the character’s appearance was a deliberate choice on Kusama’s part. A bold declaration that the woman will play the privileged (if fraught and traditionally male) role of story canvas.
Bell joins Kusama’s filmography of female characters given the same pride of place. Girlfight has a young Michelle Rodriguez training to be a boxer in a world composed exclusively of men. Her body, over which the camera never lingers for the obligatory cheesecake shot, becomes the focus of competing views of gender and femininity.
In the aptly named horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, Megan Fox is literally a body upon which plays the story of a woman’s exploitation at the hands of men. Aeon Flux tells the story of a cloned far-future liberation superhero (Charlize Theron; an actor known for altering her appearance) whose DNA contains the code that will set her society free. All of the aforementioned films were released years before similarly female-led productions such as Million Dollar Baby and The Hunger Games.
Destroyer is also keenly interested in Kidman’s body. But not just her body per se; how Kidman uses that body to move the story. The present Erin Bell has two registers: exhausted stillness or angry, violent whirlwind. The first demonstrates how events have left her physically depleted and psychologically hollowed. As the latter, Kidman tears through scenes with a primal, soul-searing rage. She takes swings at people, chases men and women on foot, pistol whips others and looms over suspects she’s beaten into submission like an ancient Fury. In several brutal fights, Kidman throws herself through space, seemingly disdainful of her physical safety, and attacks with a ferocity that belies her slightness. Rage of this sort is personal. It springs from an obsession carried over years.
Even Kidman’s delivery of Bell’s voice informs her body as story vehicle. She speaks with a suffocated rasp, certainly brought on by her drinking and hinting at a past cigarette habit. Mustering the energy to talk sometimes seems as if it is almost too much. She is nearing her end. But the way Bell’s voice cracks when she yells also suggests she’s spent hours simply screaming out her rage and trauma into the lonely desert night.
During flashbacks, Kidman adopts the coolness of the femme fatale, always moving with deliberate grace, posed in ways that seem both detached and seductive. She is unashamedly attracted to Chris and tells him so. Yet she never loses the contained energy of a law officer, eager to do some good and rid the world of bad people. Even her walk is different, light and confident as opposed to the limping tread of her future self.
The typical city of film noir is a labyrinth of narrow streets, shadowed doorways and blind alleys. The atmosphere is one of entrapment, isolation and menace. Destroyer’s L.A. resembles not the maze of The Naked City or Where the Sidewalk Ends, but the endless sprawl of the late noir Kiss Me Deadly (unsurprisingly set on the West Coast) where highways and neighborhoods, bright and airy as they might appear, lack any distinction and stretch farther than a person can see or travel. No entry and no exit.
The hunt for Silas is a fraught journey through Destroyer’s minatory L.A., and Bell is the beleaguered, lonely guide. The camera either holds high, establishing a city-of-the-plain atmosphere or keeps close to Kidman, tracking just behind; following her line of sight, focusing on that battered and world-weary face. The interweaving stories of past and present build another maze-like structure.
The effect is claustrophobic, sticking to Bell’s blinkered and revenge-driven perspective — is she keeping her head down, forever wary of the unseen blow? Kusama makes Destroyer’s world feel like a series of poorly lit footpaths, even though most of the action occurs in the daytime. The film drops Bell into a specimen jar where the oxygen is quickly running out.
But while Bell is the traveler, she is also the center of the maze. Bell is the noir protagonist trapped by circumstance and fate, dwelling in a personal and physical inferno of her own accidental devising. The maze of her L.A. is the restricted psychology of the character. She is doomed never to find the exit.
Despite subversive themes and storylines, noir depicts individuals who fall into certain prescribed and recognizable types: the naive protagonist, the black widow, the criminal. Part of the fun of watching these films is seeing how the roles are interpreted, altered, expanded.
So, who is Erin Bell?
Erin Bell is a tough cop. A loose cannon. A drunk. Her personal life is an arid wasteland. She’s an absent parent, consumed by work and booze and her own traumas. Her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) — who lives with Ethan (Scoot McNairy), Bell’s estranged but still caring ex — scorns her mother’s attempts at parenting, probably in part because the advice is often delivered on waves of whisky breath.
Men have played this part for decades. Is Destroyer merely the distaff alternative? A permutation, toss in a dash of female issues for spice? That trick is mostly an excuse to show women engaging in a catalog of male anti-social behaviors and terming the exercise progressive, feminist. It’s easy to switch genders and call it a day.
Kusama seems too careful a storyteller to peddle something so simple, and her focus aims at a deeper goal. Kidman appears in every scene of Destroyer, and at one time or another, Bell embodies each noir archetype: dupe, good cop, gangster, femme fatale. She is the doppelganger, the double, allowed by human freedom to shift identities as the situation warrants. Each role is part of the other. And she is all of them at once because she is every one of them at some point.
Silas says to Bell, “I know who you are,” when clearly he’s unaware she’s a cop. Who she is are the choices she has made, and these choices — for love, for greed, for adventure — are the axis upon which her past and present turn. Free will, the sole source of meaning in the existential noir universe, gets the better of Erin Bell. She exists in a recursive interplay of past and present. She can’t find the exit because the labyrinth spins outward from her. The vision is bleak. Bell is both the inhabitant of the maze and the maze itself.
Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.