There’s a legion of male actors who’ve earned praise and accolades for playing “bad men”—Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston. But rarely do women get to dig deep into gritty, complicated, and morally iffy roles. That’s certainly one of the reasons filmmaker Karyn Kusama’s noir crime thriller Destroyer stands out, with Nicole Kidman delivering one of the best performances of her career, in a career full of great performances. But the film also succeeds on its own as a fascinating and involving crime drama about regret and accountability.
Nicole Kidman’s LAPD detective Erin Bell is introduced in the opening seconds of Destroyer in an incredibly striking manner. She stumbles out of her car, out from under an overpass on a bright, sunny morning. Her stupor more closely resembles that of a zombie from The Walking Dead than a heroic detective, but that’s precisely the point. When she arrives at the scene of a murder, her colleagues suggest this is a regular occurrence—Erin falling asleep in her car after some bender. And while she seems to know a bit more than she lets on, she’s definitely not in the business of being helpful to a couple of beat cops.
In true noir fashion, there’s a mystery at the heart of Destroyer, and it involves Erin’s past. A series of flashbacks throughout the film slowly reveal exactly what went down when Erin went deep undercover with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan), and how events that occurred 17 years ago are still fresh in her mind. Indeed, Erin is on the hunt for a criminal named Silas (Toby Kebbell) who escaped her grasp all those years ago, and who is finally resurfacing to devastating consequences.
Erin quite clearly does not have it all together—in fact she’s barely holding it together at all. Kidman dons heavy makeup and a frayed wig for the present day scenes to show just how much self-harm Erin’s been through over the years, while in the flashbacks Kidman is fresh faced and eager. Although, even in the flashbacks there’s a flicker in Erin’s eye, a tell that the hard-edged cop we know in the present was maybe there all along. It’s a smart choice, as it refrains from pinning Erin’s troubles all down on one specific moment and instead examines themes of accountability, human nature, and our great capacity to lie to ourselves.
Kidman is tremendous in the lead role here, and indeed this film is a performance showcase. She wholly transforms into the shell-of-a-human Erin in the present, but is still more than capable of throwing (or taking) a punch despite her stumbling demeanor. While her transformation is indeed physical, this is a very internal performance and Kidman rises to the occasion. Erin is a complicated, unsettling, and at times disturbing individual, and it’s a joy to watch Kidman fully inhabit a role this meaty, this complex, and this dark.
Kusama reunites with her The Invitation screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi for Destroyer, but this project could not be more different. While their panic-attack-inducing 2015 horror film is very controlled and elegant, Destroyer is a bit shaggier. That’s a reflection of the unpredictability of its main character and it mostly fits, and visually Kusama steeps the L.A. noir in almost blinding California sunshine. It’s in direct contrast to the darkness within Erin, but also drives home the point that the truth will out—you can’t hide from yourself forever.
This shagginess extends to the narrative as well, and as the third act approaches the film starts to feel a bit long-winded. The story either retraces territory we’ve already covered or puts too fine a point on plot developments that were already inferred, leading it to feel a bit overdone here and there. But the final flashback is an emotional gut punch, and the third act also includes a showstopping scene between Erin and her teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) that’s one of the best things in the film, so the movie ends quite strongly.
I debated even mentioning this because at this point, it should go without saying that women are just as capable as men of telling hard-edged, gritty stories about complex characters, but it is worth noting that Destroyer is a film made by women (its director, cinematographer, editor, production designer, and others are all women), about a complicated woman, told from that complicated woman’s point of view. This doesn’t make Destroyer a film only for women (just as Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t only appeal to Asians), but it does serve as “proof” that there’s no reason this kind of storytelling shouldn’t be more common. It’s far more involving and richer than 90% of the “bad men” drama TV shows or pale Taxi Driver imitations that come our way these days, and there’s a bevy of talented actress itching to get their hands on a role as complex as Erin Bell.
Destroyer opens in theaters on December 25th.
For more of our reviews from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, click on the links below: