Every actor has that one role that just defines their career. One role that takes them to the next level of their craft and elevates their career to a new height. Charlize Theron has Monster, Lupita Nyong’o has 12 Years A Slave, and Mo’nique has Precious. Yet, at the heart of it all, Nicole Kidman doesn’t have that singular performance that defines what it means to be Nicole Kidman, if only because…well…all of her roles do that for her in some regard. Kidman, who is known as a classic Hollywood beauty, has no fear of getting ugly for roles, whether it be physically or emotionally. From big-budget blockbusters like Moulin Rouge, Happy Feet, and now Aquaman, to quieter pieces of despair like The Hours, Dogville, and Big Little Lies, Kidman brings it in most regards. With Destroyer, we get to see Kidman in a way that we’ve never seen her before, not just because she’s made an intense physical transformation, but in the type of film Kidman finds herself in.
The only major issue is that, however wonderful Kidman’s performance is in this, the film around it can’t seem to meet the same level of effort.
Erin Bell (Kidman) is a grizzled LAPD detective drowned in a haze of alcohol and shame. She’s volatile, disliked by her co-workers, hated by her daughter, and carries the burden of decades of guilt and regret on her shoulders. When tasked with investigating the murder of a John Doe found in a storm drain, she finds her troubled past finally coming back to finish what it started. As the story cuts back and forth between the current investigation and flashbacks of her previous life, Erin begins to uncover how to squash the threat stalking her and put her guilt and shame to rest.
Destroyer is a strange film in how unique the individual building blocks of the film are. Its direction, performances, and music somehow come together to make a police procedural film that’s hardly the sum of its parts. However uniquely fabulous performances like Kidman’s may be, or how moving the original score by Theodore Shapiro might play out, Destroyer still moves and shakes like any other detective story on screen.
The supporting performances are also pretty stellar across the board. Sebastian Stan is darkly charming in flashbacks as Erin’s partner, and eventual lover, Chris. Bradley Whitford does a stellar job as a sleazy, misogynistic lawyer that Erin must deal with to get to the center of her mystery. But the one who is anywhere near Kidman’s level of performance here is Tatiana Maslany as Petra, the girlfriend of Erin’s former crime boss, Silas. Maslany gives Petra this dying ferocity that comes from knowing that her life can only end one certain way. Her bursts of psychosis are as frightening as they are compelling, but when she’s down and out is where you truly begin to fear her character, perhaps more than any other character in the film (which says a lot). There’s a level of manipulation in her performance that deserves recognition in the emotions it makes the audience feel at any given time she is on screen.
Director Karyn Kusama approaches Destroyer as more of a neo-noir than as a standard police procedural, which the screenplay might give way far more times than none. Still, it’s Kusama’s direction that moves mountains here. It’s darker and grittier than anything she’s done in the past (The Invitation included), and a big part of its beauty is that it doesn’t feel explicitly like a Kusama film. This feels like new ground for her as a filmmaker. Of course, the film underneath her feet isn’t particularly special, but she injects it with this sort of life that makes it feel as special as it could be, given its circumstances.
My biggest issue with Destroyer is that as the film goes on, there are chances for it to turn in any given direction to shake up the formula, and yet it simply chooses the easiest route possible to get to a thematic conclusion. It isn’t until the last possible moment that the film shakes itself up in any which way, but its impact that late in the game is minimal compared to the more derivative plot points and sequences we go through for the first two hours of the film.
Which leads me to another, albeit smaller, point. Destroyer is long, or at least it feels like it. At 123 minutes, it’s hardly grounds to call the film “long” by any objective means, but the film is stuffed with so many sub-plots that don’t really go anywhere and drags out scenes that arguably don’t feel consequential that it feels like one slow-motion ride through one woman’s hell. Add to it that much of the film feels like familiar territory and you have something that feels like “slow-burn” gone very wrong.
It really is unfortunate how much Destroyer feels trod upon before even starting the film, but it’s even more unfortunate how the film misses opportunities to really “go there” as a screenplay. Still, there are special elements to Destroyer that wouldn’t be possible without Kidman’s wondrously grim performance, Kusama’s astute direction and understanding of the material, as well as a soundtrack that is as emotional as it is thrilling (often hitting the same notes simultaneously). Destroyer is a film worth seeing for those elements, but don’t expect them to come together to form anything really cohesive, as its foundation just simply doesn’t allow it to be anything more than it is on the page.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.