Battle-weary cops with a tired, ‘seen it all’ attitude are routinely depicted by men. Broad, rough around the edges, gruff men like Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood or Gene Hackman- seriously respected Hollywood players within their peak. Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, however, chooses to thrust one of this millennium’s finest, risk-taking performers at the forefront of its gritty detective story; Nicole Kidman.
Although her work with prominent art-house directors is well established, Kidman has rarely strayed from visually appearing as the ethereal beauty we all expect her to be. Her turn here as an alcoholic, dishevelled detective renders her positively unrecognisable, hidden beneath heavy ageing makeup and dark, greying wig. Unlike some recent award-winning performances bulked out primarily by a stellar makeup team, Kidman never lets the makeup dictate her character. A subtly staggered walk, husky whispered voice and thousand yard stare contribute to her dishevelment as the troubled ex-cop in one of her finest performances to date.
As detective Erin Bell she is a woman seeking redemption, or could it be revenge? Or perhaps accountability? The murky lines that can define a good or evil character are regularly tussled with and re-arranged as we meet Erin stumbling onto a crime scene that sees a man shot dead in the street. Claiming that she knows the victim due to the gang tattoo on the back of his neck, Erin believes that a criminal from her past as an undercover cop is active once more. With her intention to find the culprit herself (away from other police interference) blatantly clear, she sets out to track down the other players in the gang one by one, which she hopes will lead to their leader Silas (Toby Kebbell).
In theory the plot could not be more simply laid bare; catch Silas and lock him up. However, Kusama’s focus is not on the chase itself, but on the events that led Erin to this moment. The motivations behind her thirst for justice and the tragedy that befell her along the way all those years ago as a rookie cop. Haggard and weary, Kidman still manages to play Erin with a powerful and almost masculine swagger, she can walk into any environment and command it- demanding attention. Along her investigation she encounters multiple members of the gang she once infiltrated alongside partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), now either deeper into the criminal underworld or seeking repentance for their previous involvement, some 16 years later.
Erin’s reunion with these characters feels like a considerable emotional journey, more so than other cop films of this nature. Flashbacks to Erin and Chris’ time undercover (Kidman here de-aged) are tender and conflicted, the pair clearly getting along with the criminals they are infiltrating, and questioning their own morals along the way. Kusama plays well with this conflict, and Kidman bears it on her shoulders as present-day Erin roams the sparse, dry streets of LA seeking out her next target.
The regular jumps between past and present do become quite difficult to match up their multiple threads as the story draws to a close, but it’s a gruelling watch, one that demands patience, delivering a most satisfying and painful payoff. Kusama once again tricks her audience into believing her work is a standard genre piece, luring them in with the promise of gunfights and arrests (as The Invitation seemed to promise us thrills and bloody kills, but exceeded expectations) but taking the nuanced route to hone in on Kidman’s stunning character work; exactly the type of messy, complicated and vast woman character audiences are yearning for. Destroyer takes its time on its warpath, but Kusama trusts in her actors enough to let them lead the violent way.
Dir: Karyn Kusama
Scr: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, Zach Villa, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson
Prd: Nik Bower, Dan Friedkin, Micah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Nathan Kelly, Thorsten Schumacher, Daniel Steinman
DOP: Julie Kirkwood
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Run time: 116 minutes
Destroyer is out on Blu-Ray and DVD on May 27th