Every so often a role comes along that allows an actor to delve into a glorious depth of ugliness and density. Sometimes these roles are within solid films, and sometimes these performances can elevate what would have been a mediocre film, into a better one. Nicole Kidman is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. She is a risk taker both in her craft and her career, throwing herself into roles of complexity and peculiarity. However, nothing Nicole Kidman has done can prepare yourself for what she produces here. Destroyer follows the moral and existential odyssey of LAPD detective Erin Bell who, as a young cop, was placed undercover with a gang in the California desert with tragic and lasting results. When the leader of that gang re-emerges many years later, she must work her way back through the remaining members and into her own history to finally lay to rest the demons that destroyed her past.
Director Karyn Kusama describes Destroyer as a “woman-against-herself” story in which a tortured cop is forced to confront the guilty ghosts of the past while becoming accountable for the actions of the present. The film owes a debt to the character-driven crime stories of the past, while also being a worthy addition. Erin (Nicole Kidman) could have easily been played by a male, but in a profoundly contemporary take by the flipping of traditional gender roles, Destroyer is astoundingly successful. Erin is the modern-day Bad Lieutenant, a haunted damaged law enforcement officer that flirts alarmingly close to moral ambiguity. To call her an antihero doesn’t do the ‘anti’ justice. Conversely, testament to a good performance and film is the profound flip in our response to the character in the last scenes, where we realise how sadly human, she was. As the tearful Erin makes her arresting admission that “I’m not good” toward the end, we are keenly aware of how right she is.
Kusama has shot the film phenomenally. While at times the pacing falls, there are enough beautifully composed scenes to keep one engaged. Her shootout scenes, both present and in flashback, are powerful screen configurations that display the directors untapped talents. She also doesn’t let this film become a meditation on gender, she embraces the genre and lets the ‘gritty’ take charge. Kidman’s performance has driven most of the discussion for the film… and rightfully so. It’s an astonishingly powerful performance that is given its all by a wonderful actress. She speaks with a barely audible whisper and a broken gait that makes an audience smell the alcohol dripped depression. She endows her character with a fascinating dichotomy of both hollowness and complexity. It’s her best performance since her Oscar winning turn in The Hours. It should be noted though that that we are acutely aware this is a grand performance, its capital acting with an ‘A’.
Destroyer isn’t an easy film to watch. Unlike most modern crime thrillers where the grimace is alleviated by witty and fast dialogue, Destroyer is as dry as the LA desert. From the first frames of the film where Erin wakes in her car with a ravaged face, eyes translucent and vacant, sweating of self-loathing in the scorching sun – you know it’s a hard watch. Kusama emphasizes stillness — unforgiving and indifferent. Kusama’s shots, particularly the last one, are stunning. However just like Kidman, its slightly too much for this film… they were wasted on what is in its essence just a straight forward crime thriller.
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