An unsparing and unflinching portrait of a damaged crusader.
An astonishing transformation. Nicole Kidman in Destroyer. Source: Madman Entertainment.
Playing a Los Angeles detective with a disposition as dark as the shadows she’s drawn to, Nicole Kidman’s transformation in Destroyer ranks among the most astonishing of her career. While wigs and makeup do plenty of heavy lifting, the Australian actor’s power doesn’t spring from her dressing room, but from the raw tenor of her committed performance. As the perpetually weary and hungover Erin Bell, a lifetime of pain is evident in her steely gaze and stumbling gait, both of which grate against her slick, smooth surroundings. She’s a woman beaten and bruised, with the physical weathering and emotional scars to prove it. She’s also a hard-nosed cop with an axe to grind, mistakes to redress and wounds to tend to.
That anti-hero archetype — the damaged but determined crusader fighting for a cause while battling their own worst traits — is a worn one, driving more gritty crime stories than anyone can count. Still, it’s a description all too rarely afforded a female protagonist, especially in the noir-ish cop genre cemented in moody flicks of the 1970s. As directed by Karyn Kusama and scripted by her now three-time collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Destroyer offers the best of both worlds: the crumbling, complicated protagonist whose gender doesn’t matter, and the broken woman forever changed by a brutal life. With features such as Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation and horror anthology XX to her name, Kusama is no stranger to finding the space between these two extremes; however this might be her most compelling example so far.
There’s a reason that the film, its filmmaker and her cinematographer Julie Kirkwood can’t look away from Bell’s wizened appearance, with her unsparing glare, age-worn face, knotty knuckles and unkempt shock of hair. Every snap judgement that her unglamorous look inspires, Bell has heard and worse. Smarting from a rough childhood and a 17-year-old case she can’t forget, she directs the same vitriol towards herself. Indeed, when her colleagues laugh her off at the crime scene that opens the movie — she knows who did it, she slurs mid-stagger — it feels like par for the never-ending course.
Thanks to strewn, dye-stained banknotes found next to the latest corpse to come across her path, Bell is forced back onto the trail of her white whale — the undercover incident, with then-partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), that she can’t blot out with booze or bad decisions. Fittingly given its focus on a woman so visibly haunted by her past, Destroyer jumps between her memories of chasing down an alluring criminal (Toby Kebbell) and her current quest. Potentially thwarting the latter: her 16-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who has a jump-start on Bell’s attitude and a fondness for her questionable choices.
Bell is no ordinary mother, just as she’s no ordinary police officer. In a heartbreaking admission in one of Destroyer’s calmest yet most gripping scenes, she characterises herself as simply no good. Of course, the reality is much murkier than her bleak self-assessment, and that’s the appeal of thorny cops-and-robbers tales that double as probing character studies. Never relinquishing the film’s grim mood, but never simplifying Bell’s plight either, Kusama paints a warts-and-all picture of a battered life cutting deep and leaving the sharpest imprint.
A showcase piece all around — for Kidman, Kusama and Kirkwood, as well as editor Plummy Tucker and composer Theodore Shapiro — Destroyer is perhaps best encapsulated by two of its standout moments. In one, a tense shootout offers a masterclass in action, its bullet-riddled onslaught not only strikingly staged, shot and spliced together, but as deft and complex as the mess in Bell’s head. In the other, which Kusama deploys more than once, the brooding protagonist sinks into her junker of a car and steals a deep breath. It’s a quiet but fraught scene. Just as Destroyer finds its story between universal cop tropes and one woman’s ceaseless ordeal, it also finds its strength between constant chaos and daring to assess the wreckage.
Director: Karyn Kusama
US, 2018, 121 mins
Australian release date: March 21