Director: Karyn Kusama
Screenwriters: Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
Runtime: 121 mins.
Australian release date: 21 March 2019
Previewed at: Reel Room, Sydney, on 12 March 2019.
Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer features Nicole Kidman as you have never seen her before; in fact, many have hailed this performance as her best to date. It is definitely a tough role but her character is so damaged she’s almost over the top. She’s so grungy she makes you wish she’d take time out for a shower. If that’s too much, maybe just splash a bit of water on her face? Grime is to her character here as the prosthetic nose was to her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Regrettably, the script suffers from an air of incredulity that makes for a more critical observation of the situation the writers have placed her character in, despite Kidman’s performance. It’s all a bit overwrought.
The film opens in a tight close-up on the blood-shot, red-rimmed eyes of Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), an LAPD undercover cop sitting in her car by the Los Angeles River culvert, instantly recognisable from so many movies. It immediately informs us that we are in the LA badlands. Police are cordoning off the area around a dead body but, when Bell arrives on the scene, she isn’t welcomed by the attending officers. She obviously has a reputation that has preceded her so, when she makes a comment that the corpse indicates that the head of a notorious criminal gang must be back on the streets, she is told to leave the area. Departing, she gives her colleagues the finger - so much for interdepartmental camaraderie. We subsequently discover that Bell was previously involved in an undercover operation with her police partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), that infiltrated a gang of bank-robbers led by a guy known only as Silas (Toby Kebbell), but it ended in disaster. Subsequently, Bell developed a heavy-duty predilection for alcohol and let herself go… badly (hence the grime). She is, however, through the haze of substance abuse, able to remain clear-headed enough to stay ahead of the investigation as she attempts to make amends for the catastrophic, deadly stuff-up and seek her revenge.
Kidman pares back every bit of her glamorous persona to flesh out her character, making her tough, driven but vulnerable, exuding a state of anxiety that is uncomfortable viewing at times. Part of Bell’s journey puts her in a shoot-out at a bank that has bullets flying in all directions, in which she brandishes a rapid-fire automatic weapon. When interviewed, Kidman said she had to take lessons in how to use such a high-calibre weapon and it must be said, she accomplishes the task well, bringing authenticity to the manoeuvre. At the other end of the scale, there’s a very poignant scene between her and her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) where she exposes herself completely, revealing that she is fully cognisant of her damaged soul. It’s a tour-de-force.
Destroyer lives up to its title and Kidman received a number of nominations for Best Actress, including the Golden Globes, and she won the Courage in Acting Award at the US Women Film Critics Circle Awards but, for some reason, an Oscar nomination eluded her. Karyn Kusama’s direction is tight and the mise en scène captures a foreboding sleaziness that pervades every frame. This bleakness takes its toll though and, by the end credits, you’re happy to see the curtains close. You’ll leave the cinema wondering if Detective Bell has indeed found peace at last.