Over the next few months, as we further descend into the overwhelming low-high stakes of Oscar season, you will see the above image a lot. You will no doubt encounter countless think-pieces focusing on Nicole Kidman’s appearance in Destroyer, how ‘transformative’ it is and how ‘brave’ she is to go ‘ugly.’ Such things are inevitable in an aesthetic-focused industry and they’re always boring in their reductive nature. This will be no different for Kidman, a staggering talent who puts in an endlessly gripping performance in the new film by Karyn Kusama.
Kidman plays Erin Bell, an LAPD detective who still lives with the trauma from a deep undercover job in her youth, where she entered a bank robbing gang and things went very wrong. Years later, the elusive leader of that gang has resurfaced and Bell goes on a one-woman mission to hunt him down, whatever the cost.
The basic set-up is classic detective thriller stuff and Kusama keeps the investigation tight. Bell has no space in her life for bullshit and neither does the movie. This is a story about how female rage can be simultaneously futile and effective. Erin slumps from location to location, stalking old foes and potential suspects, including the ever-watchable Tatiana Maslany, like prey. Going off the grid, she eschews the typical detective work in favor of good old-fashioned fury. Yes, this is a movie where Nicole Kidman pistol whips the fuck out of several people. This carnage is contrasted with flashbacks to Erin’s past, when she and fellow cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated a drug gang run by Silas (Toby Kebbell) under the guise as reckless young folks in love. The film is as much an interrogation of Erin as a criminal investigation, with Kusama dissecting her guilt and trauma like a puzzle that can never be solved. As well as her own mess, Erin’s teenage daughter Shelby has started skipping school and hanging out with a skeezy older man, and no amount of last-minute parenting can mend the rift that’s formed between them.
While obvious attention will be paid to Kidman going drab to play a woman who has her years of self-loathing embedded on her face, there’s so much more to her mighty performance: from the way she walks, as someone to whom sobriety is a foreign concept, to the ruthless efficiency with which she pistol whips everyone in her path. While it’s clear Erin seldom feels truly motivated in her current situation, she is still able to instinctively turn on the charm or play a new role to get close to suspects. In those moments, she feels like the woman of those flashback scenes, eager to serve and sliding into her allotted role with ease. Kidman adds shades of sympathy to Erin’s abrasiveness but does not strive to make her more palatable. Indeed, she can be pretty rage inducing and not always on purpose. This is her movie and she’s present in almost every scene, so you know Kidman isn’t going to waste that opportunity. Coming off a two-year victory lap of acclaimed performances and collaborations with auteurs, her work in Destroyer still stands out as uniquely strong.
Structurally, this potboiler of a mystery takes some unexpected turns, although a couple of its stylistic choices, such as one where characters’ conversations happen with voice-over, fall flat. While the story itself is as tight as an apple skin in terms of its plotting, one scene with Bradley Whitford doing his incredibly Bradley Whitford thing feels like it belongs in a much slicker movie. The film is at its best when Kusama keeps it lean and mean, and there is such glorious nastiness in this film when it gets the space to be so. If nothing else, Destroyer acts as a top notch reel for Kusama to pitch for any project she wants in the near future. She never did get the boost she deserved following her stunning debut, Girlfight.
Nicole Kidman dominates Destroyer and helps that film work in so many ways, although its bare bones and Kusama’s direction also leave it a sturdy enough creation to stand on its own two feet. Still, everyone involved seems secure in their awareness that it’s Kidman who will garner the lion’s share of headlines and rightly so. It boggles the mind that one of the best actresses of her generation has to continue to prove herself, with every new burst of acclaim creating hot takes of the ‘comeback’ that doesn’t exist. Destroyer could be a career peak for her, but she’s probably got another one of those just around the corner.
Destroyer will be released in American cinemas on December 25th.