We have, without a doubt, never seen Nicole Kidman like this before. But there’s far more to her performance in Destroyer than the remarkable, ravaging make-up job that has already received so much attention, and deserves to draw comparisons with Charlize Theron’s transformation for Monster in 2003. The role of LA detective Erin Bell is the kind you’d expect someone like Harvey Keitel or Woody Harrelson to play: a deeply flawed, corrupt cop who barrels through the story with a sense of self-justification that’s only matched by their sheer moral turpitude. Whether she’s employing seriously dubious interrogation techniques or going in all guns blazing — and never mind the collateral damage — Bell is surely up there with the baddest of lieutenants.
You might occasionally stop and think, “Hang on, did I really just see Nicole Kidman kick in a door and fire an assault rifle?” But, this being an ever-versatile, Oscar-winning actor, you’ll soon be lost in the ever-thickening shadows of her performance.
Kidman has hollowed herself out and delivered a starkly powerful turn.
It is by no means an easy watch. Destroyer, as the title suggests, is a grim, downbeat thriller which rarely leavens its dramatic truncheon-blows with lighter interludes. Unlike Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which features a similarly astonishing, similarly brutal performance from Frances McDormand, there’s no wit or snap to the dialogue, no black humour to revel in. Bell isn’t blessed with one-liners or acerbic comebacks. She’s a traumatised, red-eyed insomniac, living out of her car and lurching around the streets of LA like a badge-flashing zombie. You wince just watching her walk.
Interestingly, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and director of photography Julie Kirkwood present the city in an almost post-apocalyptic way: oddly desolate and tainted by decay. We know it’s just the Los Angeles we’re familiar with from so many cop flicks, yet we experience it as Bell does, in a hellish afterlife created in the wake of an undercover assignment that went disastrously south 17 years earlier. It is impressively toxic.
Some story beats don’t quite measure up to Kusama’s heady world-(un)building, or Kidman’s impeccable downward-spiralling. A subplot about Bell’s teenage daughter becomes a distraction that
ends with a rather obvious pay-off, the flashbacks don’t sell the malevolence of Toby Kebbell’s gang leader, and there is one crucial plot point that just doesn’t quite click in terms of the character motivation behind it. But none of it will derail this psychological subway ride through Bell’s personal hell. It’s hard to imagine anything that could distract you from marvelling at the way Kidman has hollowed herself out and delivered such a starkly powerful, darkly disturbing turn.