Destroyer Is a Murder Mystery That Seeks to Upend Your Expectations

The acclaimed director Karyn Kusama discusses her new film, working with Nicole Kidman, and emerging from “movie jail.”

Karyn Kusama and Nicole Kidman on the set of 'Destroyer'
Karyn Kusama and Nicole Kidman on the set of Destroyer (Annapurna)

This article contains major spoilers for the film Destroyer.

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, currently in limited release and expanding around the United States in January, at first presents as a rather typical murder mystery. It’s centered on a veteran LAPD detective, Erin Bell (played by Nicole Kidman), who has been hardened by her decades on the force and by some mysterious trauma in her past as an undercover cop. She’s tasked with investigating a death that ties into her time masquerading as a gang member years earlier, and soon finds herself on a crooked path of vengeance. At the same time, she’s trying to reconnect with her teenage daughter, who represents Erin’s last tether to a happier life.

But Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who also co-wrote Kusama’s films Aeon Flux and The Invitation), has a surprising twist ending that complicates its pulpy story. Kusama has worked in many genres, helming excellent cult horror films such as The Invitation and Jennifer’s Body, the superb boxing movie Girlfight, and the Charlize Theron–starring Aeon Flux, which was a notable flop following its 2005 release. In an interview with The Atlantic, Kusama spoke about her aims in making Destroyer, the thinking behind the movie’s biggest plot twist, and the perils of being in so-called director jail after a box-office failure. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: I know Destroyer was written by your collaborators, but what drew you to the project?

Karyn Kusama: Well, Phil [Hay] and Matt [Manfredi], whom I’ve worked with three times now, had started talking about this story around the same time they were talking about The Invitation. They were talking about a circular story—a structure that was going to somewhat aggressively be living between the present and the past, and it was all anchored by this incredibly complicated, damaged woman. And I would say the emotional heart of the film lived in her relationship to her daughter. [The writers] brought me in at the outline phase, and we talked through, scene by scene, what they hoped to achieve, and I pointed out areas that I’d be open to emphasizing or amplifying, and then areas that felt more like the business of telling the story. They wrote it pretty quickly once we got through those years of dinner-table conversations.

Sims: Was the script what drew Nicole Kidman to the project?

Kusama: It was. She had been given the script by her agent and had reached out to me, saying, “I don’t know if you’ve considered me, but I’d like you to.” It was really interesting, because, truth be told, until that moment, I hadn’t. And the script had been written for somebody who was 39 instead of 49.

Sims: Someone you’re aging up rather than down.

Kusama: Exactly. And yet, as I was talking to [Kidman], she brought so much inquiry into the process of talking about the script. She was never saying, “I know exactly what to do.” She was always saying, “I actually don’t know what to do, and that feeling is obsessing me.” That kind of creative thirst from her made me think, She is the one.

Sims: Was there the appeal that she’d never tackled a role like this?

Kusama: I think that really excited her. It’s true that she hadn’t, and yet for me, in entertainment circles, movies that people talk about wanting to evoke [are often films that Kidman has been in]—To Die For, The Others, movies that we still don’t see high-quality versions of very often. When she told me that she’d hunted down [the director] Yorgos Lanthimos and said, “I’ll do anything you give me to do,” and that’s how she ended up in [The Killing of a Sacred Deer], I just think that takes some platinum ovaries to say, “I’m your girl, and I trust your artistry.” She was refreshingly unstrategic and so attuned to the idea that [the movie] just may not work. Being open about that is a rare thing to encounter in the business.

Sims: So when you’re breaking this story, what are the things you want to emphasize?

Kusama: I was really hoping we feel a totality of character by the end of the film. That the mission of the film could be to slowly draw the audience into a layered and complex tale of crime and crime gone wrong. And that by the end of the film, we actually feel like we have uncovered some degree of the mystery that drives humans. That there was this human we got to spend time with, whom we know a little bit better.

Sims: What did you ask for from the screenwriters?

Kusama: A lot of the scenes I [initially] asked for were much more behavior-based. How does she eat? Her routines, her home. [But] a lot of that stuff couldn’t really live alongside the narrative thrust of a crime thriller [and so we moved away from that approach]. It would have been a really interesting movie if I had just focused primarily on simple, behavioral, routine-oriented tasks, but I wasn’t really looking to make Jeanne Dielman. I was more interested in seeing if I could crack this intellectual puzzle that [Hay and Manfredi] had first proposed.

Sims: The circular story.

Kusama: Yes, this idea that we watch the investigation of a crime until we understand that what we are really seeing is that the detective is hunting herself. That was just such a cool idea.

Sims: Because there are these two mysteries at play: There’s the one you’re talking about, where Erin Bell is investigating this murder that eventually we realize there’s more to [because she herself committed the crime and is trying to cover it up], and then there’s this mystery of what happened to her in the past. And you don’t want to put too much emphasis on one or the other.

Kusama: Right. Also, we make this assumption that time moves forward. And obviously the movie is attempting to give the audience a sense that we make assumptions about stories that are very linear or forward thinking, forward moving. But perhaps that’s not true of [all] stories. In Erin’s case, she has never moved on from the past. So she is constantly toggling, psychologically, between these two states of mind. You could argue there’s been [mental] degeneration, but there hasn’t been “progress” for her.

Sims: Especially in this genre, the cop mystery, we’re given this tableau of a crime scene and the dead body. There are clues, and Erin is on the case. Initially when you’re watching Destroyer, you understand that she is personally wrapped up in the case, and she’s not in a good headspace about it, but we still expect the conclusion of her figuring it out.

Kusama: That’s what our brains do the fast math on. And it’s interesting: Even right now where we are culturally, we believe progress moves forward, and then are despairing when it feels like we are moving backwards. But you could make an argument that there’s tremendous progress happening right now, and there have been progressive eras that were filled with crimes against humanity of every kind. On a story level [with Destroyer], I think you emotionally get to experience, in this pure, forward-marching way, Erin Bell being accountable to her daughter and taking some shred of personal responsibility.

Sims: That’s the progress.

Kusama: Yes, and if you watch the film a second time, you watch Erin make that progress and then go murder someone. On second viewing, we can get closer to the notion that we contain multitudes, and that good people can do bad things and good things. That there’s no simple reduction of the character.

Sims: Because there’s also the genre of a man or woman on a revenge mission, where the notion of progress is implied—that the audience will be satisfied at the end because the vengeance will be achieved, even if the character ends up dying or being broken spiritually.

Kusama: Vengeance movies are sent to me a lot, as if there’s something obviously pleasurable about them. I think unfortunately the sad truth of it is that [the genre is often] deeply unsatisfying. And so, for the most part, the feedback I’ve received is that it’s weird that, in Destroyer, the killing itself is a nonevent. There was no part of me that wanted to make it remotely heroic or emotionally satisfying. What I hope we are left with is the sad fact of [the murder Erin commits]. It tells us about who she is—a very damaged, morally compromised, broken person—and might ask us to reconsider the idea of vengeance in general.

Sims: When the story was being developed, were you thinking about challenging the tropes of a cop movie?

Kusama: I wanted the movie to be satisfying on that [genre] level. I’m not a snob about movie culture in many ways. I think [David Fincher’s] Seven is one of the greatest works of art and a statement about the impending apocalyptic state of the world. I see a lot of possibility in these popular forms. And yet ultimately I feel like I’ve had such profound art experiences, and I’m trying to find a marriage of the two. I’m starting to feel like if you can reach people working in both [populist and art-film] frequencies, there’s a possibility that the work persists. That’s ultimately my goal with all of these films. So there are going to be films that I myself don’t want to remember, like Aeon Flux, but then movies like Jennifer’s Body are getting some reevaluation as they age.

Sims: I think Jennifer’s Body is quite well remembered at this point.

Kusama: Which is funny, because it was just completely dismissed at the time, and I was at that moment of “You know what? I’m learning to move on.” Which is a skill that one must cultivate if you’re going to stay alive in this business. So I think I always start from a personal place. For me, The Invitation or Destroyer or Jennifer’s Body or Girlfight, all of them started as an emotional pull toward something.

Sims: Did you perceive a difficulty in getting your next movie made after Jennifer’s Body? Because there’s the idea of a director being in “movie jail” [where it’s hard to get hired after a string of box-office failures]. Do you think that’s still very much a concept?

Kusama: Absolutely. I think it’s pretty real. I think it’s a question of how you internalize it or don’t. For me, there was a point where I was like, “You know what? The outside world may perceive me as being in movie jail, [but] there’s a lot of work I want to do, and there’s a lot that I can do in the meantime to get me to that work.” For me, it was enormously helpful to start directing high-quality television.

Sims: AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which you directed several episodes of, is one of the best shows of the past 10 years.

Kusama: That show completely changed my understanding of what you could do with TV. I was such a collaborator with the creators [Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers], and I went back every season and felt so close to what they were investigating. Halt isn’t some secondary career [to me]; it’s an amazingly rich show that gives me so much to work with. Finding shows that give you that kind of reinvigorated attachment to interesting stories, interesting characters, playing with form and visuals and language … it’s just a really interesting exercise. [I did] that for a couple of years when I was trying to get all these indie films off the ground that no one wanted to finance, including The Invitation. And then I got to make that movie, where I had final-cut [rights] again, the same as with Destroyer. And I was like, “Oh, I see a pattern developing. I should just figure out ways where I can work with a strong sense of creative authority.” It makes me a better collaborator, a better listener, a more attuned filmmaker.