Nicole Kidman is having quite a moment. She started 2018 on a high note, with Emmy wins for her contributions to the HBO series “Big Little Lies,” and just kept the momentum going from there, with starring roles in Boy Erased, Aquaman, this week’s The Upside and, perhaps in her most stunning performance of them all, Destroyer. Kidman is Detective Erin Bell, a woman with a rough history, every bit of which is on display in her complexion, her stature, her gait, her speech. This is a woman who’s seen things, lived to tell the story and managed to cope with it all in any way that she can.
Directed by Karyn Kusama, who established herself as a filmmaker comfortable dealing in human nature’s grittiest moments with her debut feature Girlfight (way back in 2000), Destroyer follows Bell as she investigates a murder that will draw her back into a dark past she’s tried to put behind her. Through flashbacks, glimpses of that dark past are pieced together to help us understand just how she got to here, where here is a teenage daughter(Jade Pettyjohn) who won’t have anything to do with her and a department who’ve written her off as a has-been whose best days on the force are behind her.
And to be sure, Bell doesn’t exactly try to argue the point with them. Kidman is nearly unrecognizable under Bell’s mottled skin and smoker’s teeth, and if one says nothing else at all for the film, her performance alone reminds us just what a force she remains on screen, the center point of any film in which she’s given a chance to shine. From moment one, when Bell wakes up dazed and dry-mouthed in a car on the side of the road only to show up to a nearby murder scene, Kidman is in control. This is a woman who is trained to protect and serve, and even in her desperate state, she’s constantly on guard, noticing details and quick to act.
When a marked dollar bill shows up on her desk at the station, Bell knows instantly who sent it: the head of a crime gang she joined years ago as an undercover cop with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan, absent any hint of his typical pretty-boy demeanor). Assigned to infiltrate the operation in and effort to bring it down, the two participate in sting operations that regularly put them in the middle of sketchy affairs. Thrown into the deep end together, the two understandably fall in love. These moments (Kidman looking less beat-up than her present-day character) are genuinely touching, reminding us that Bell is a human being, not just some shell of a women with no f*cks left to give. Which makes the tragic end of one of their crime jobs all the more intense; revealed towards the end of the film, it helps an understanding of Bell’s current state click into place.
Well, it’s sort of revealed towards the end of the film. Except once the tragedy hits, there’s actually quite a lot of film left, and this is where the film loses its way. Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who wrote crazy/beautiful and The Invitation—also directed by Kusama—together), Destroyer mostly successfully channels the crime and cop dramas that come before it (L.A. Confidential, Heat, etc.). But as the film tries to wind down, it somehow takes itself far too seriously, spending far too much time trying to convince us that Bell was forever changed by the tragedy and won’t soon forget it. There is a twist toward the very end that, admittedly, caught me off guard and makes up for a bit of the careening plot line in the scenes leading up to it. But such are the missteps of the final act that Destroyer, despite Kidman’s central impressive performance, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.
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