A barnstorming twist closes Destroyer, the riveting new film from Girlfight director Karyn Kusama, but this is more intrigue crime drama than compelling thriller. Nicole Kidman leads as haggard antihero Erin Bell, an LAPD officer – with complex history – who could easily warrant a franchise to deliver her own extreme form justice. Staggering around with a potent feline vulnerability, Kidman is unrecognisable in every sense, bar that hers is yet another recognisably stellar performance.
What really sings with Destroyer is Kusama’s terrific realignment of the genre tropes that have been ruggedly reserved for rough and ready male gunslingers across generations. Bell is a one woman force of nature; she breaks the rules, ignores phone calls from her superiors and enters battle without backup. She’s a washout too. Indeed, we first meet her bloodshot eyes first, waking in a car, parked beneath a freeway bridge, somewhere in scorched Los Angeles. A harsh, unforgiving sun burns against her wizened skin and, at work, colleagues pull no punches in acknowledging her descent into degradation: ‘You look terrible’. All is reflected in Kusama’s framing and visuals, perfectly photographed by Julie Kirkwood’s arid cinematography. Flashbacks might share the colourful vibrancy of La La Land but, in the present, such life has withered.
The film does, in fact, open with death. When a John Doe victim is discovered, shot through with an abandoned handmade revolver, the sight of a purple ink stained banknote and curious tattoo insignia are enough for Bell to link the case to one with which she was intimately connected sixteen years earlier. Slowly but surely Kusama teases Bell’s story out from the script, which comes from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Revealed is her history as an undercover agent within a gang headed up by cruel, relentless Silas (a strong Toby Kebbell). Bell’s then partner – Sebastian Stan’s Chris – is no longer on the scene but the absence clearly marks a sore point, hinting at a relationship that was more than professional. Suspicions become theories and eventually answers as Bell ploughs through witnesses and evidence in search of Silas, who has finally returned from hiding. If the pacing slackens now and again, tighter swathes make lapses worth the wait.
Plastered in makeup and exquisitely held, Kidman impresses at every turn. Physically and spiritually, she dominates her scenes, with Kusama favouring close cut shots of those painful eyes. Aural elevation furthers the viewers’ sensory experience of Bell’s pain by heightening Kidman’s laden breathing and emphasising each and every step she takes on her wasteland quest. In fits, amid the action, Bell wrestles an estranged private life, epitomised by the rebellious teenage daughter – Jade Pettyjohn’s Shelby – who she is desperate to see avoid her own miserable fate: ‘I know what it’s like to grow up bad, jealous, hungry, scared.’ It’s a conflicted bond; in one moment Bell will do anything for her daughter, at others she doesn’t ‘have a lot of time for her f****ing issues right now.’
Rather than a woman defined by maternal inadequacies, however, Bell is a certifiable woman of action and Kusama excels in capturing more than one exhilarating bank robbery turned shoot out sequence. Wounds are not cursory here and there is strange satisfaction in witnessing the accumulative effect bruises have on Bell’s attitude and manner. An extra twist comes with the realisation that Kidman was actually ill herself throughout the production – you don’t get more method than that.
There are reservations. Occasionally, a sense of tonal consistency feels to be lacking in the film’s artistry, whilst a number of editorial quirks jar. On the other hand, as a vehicle for a seething, venomous Kidman, Destroyer fits every bill.