Despite Nicole Kidman earning an extremely deserved Golden Globe nomination earlier this year, her turn in Karyn Kusama’s unconventional crime thriller Destroyer was ultimately lost in the awards shuffle. And once you experience this hard-boiled feature, you’ll be at a loss as to how exactly Kidman and the film itself weren’t stronger contenders.
Feminist cliches are thrown aside and a neo-noir mentality is lathered across Kusama’s grimy film that places Kidman (utterly transformed with her gaunt face riddled with substance-abused skin and prosthetic teeth) at the centre as LAPD Detective Erin Bell. Shaken out of her alcoholic stupor by the re-emergence of a known bank robber, Silas (Toby Kebbell) – a figure who wronged her years prior (the Phil Hay/Matt Manfredi-penned script delights in alternating between the past and present throughout) – Bell’s search for him leads her on a destructive path, one she evidently has no fear in chasing.
There’s a suicidal recklessness that Bell injects into her investigative manners, something that gives the film both a horrific and heartbreaking edge as her past relationship with Silas, and subsequently the tragedy that befell her due to their union, has drastically altered her path in the present. When tracking down Silas’s associates in her bid to learn of his whereabouts Bell hones a near-indestructiveness – there’s a great scene involving a scene-chewing Bradley Whitford as a corrupt lawyer that serves as a prime example of Bell’s fearlessness towards extracting any information she can – which, in turn, has driven her away from her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn); the film’s decision to highlight Erin’s inadequacies as a mother just another of the genre conventions it does away with.
Only sporadically does Kusama allow moments of levity to shine through the immoral universe she’s created here, with Sebastian Stan bringing a welcome glow to several of the film’s flashback moments revolving around his fellow undercover officer and the relationship formed between himself and Erin; the stark transformation of Kidman even more noticeable and impressive when viewed against the natural beauty she exudes in these earlier scenes.
Though Kidman is something of a bold choice to hang a film of vengeful temperament around, her utter dedication to the character has paid off in spades. Similarly, this was just as much of a gamble for Kusama, although her past female-centric directorial features (Girlfight, Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body) have proven her capabilities as a storyteller for women.
A slow-burner that explodes towards a kinetically-charged final act, Destroyer deserves to be experienced by anyone who appreciates quality cinema. An unflinching character study about a woman owning her mistakes, Kusama’s hard-hitting tale isn’t just earning its praise through its uncustomary depictions of women, or its career-best turn from Kidman, but because as its own product it’s exhilarating, emotional, and its refusal to pander to genre stereotypes should be universally commended.
As a young cop, Erin Bell went under cover to infiltrate a gang in the California desert — with tragic results. Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. When the leader of that gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on an obsessive quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past.
Destroyer (MA15+) is screening in Australian theatres from March 21st 2019.