Karyn Kusama’s moody Los Angeles cop thriller, Destroyer, is destined to be remembered as the film in which one of Hollywood’s most famously glamorous and elegant superstars, Nicole Kidman, demonstrated just how unglamorous and inelegant she could be. Kidman plays LAPD detective Erin Bell, a name which makes her sound like a Disney character, when she is actually the exact opposite. A gaunt, alcoholic wreck who tends to sleep either in a bar or in her car, Erin has papery, liver-spotted skin; cracked lips; bags over as well as under her eyes; and a mop of greying hair that would probably digest any comb that went near it. Whenever she trudges towards her colleagues, they swear under their breath and back away, mainly because she has become such an embarrassing liability, but partly, you assume, because of the stench that clings to her black leather jacket.
For a male film star to play such a hopeless case would be brave enough; for a female film star to do so is almost unprecedented
Kidman’s lack of vanity in the role is impressive, but the film’s truly daring aspect is not how badly Erin looks but how badly she behaves. She alienates her colleagues and beats up her contacts, habits which Hollywood movies usually give to wisecracking rebels. But Erin is less of a cool anti-hero than a hot mess. She has ruined her relationship with her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) and her teenaged daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn); her working relationship with her partner (Shamier Anderson) isn’t much better; and her barely competent police work seems to be motivated not by a thirst for justice or even revenge, but by half-crazed desperation. For a male film star to play such a hopeless case would be brave enough; for a female film star to do so is almost unprecedented. Destroyer isn’t quite as radical as Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, but both films take action-movie archetypes – the maverick cop, the soldier-turned-mercenary – and examine how deeply miserable such a person would be.
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The reason Erin is so troubled is that, almost two decades earlier, she went on an undercover mission that went catastrophically wrong. She and an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) were assigned to infiltrate a gang of bank-robbing lowlifes who were under the control of a Charles Manson-like sadist, Silas (Toby Kebbell). He disappeared after she failed to bring him to justice, but one night Erin spots a tattoo on a murder victim’s neck which identifies him as one of Silas’s acolytes. If she can find her old enemy after all this time, she might just find redemption, too – although, given that the murder victim appears healthier than she does, that redemption never seems likely.
As Erin harasses one after another of Silas’s sleazebag associates (including a rich and smarmy lawyer played by Bradley Whitford), Destroyer alternates between the current investigation and teasing flashbacks to the ill-fated undercover job, which means that the film offers two Kidman transformations for the price of one: in the present she looks like death warmed up, and in the past she is a fresh-faced rookie who could have been a model if she hadn’t made it through police academy. The wigs and the prosthetic make-up can be distracting: it’s hard to concentrate on Kidman’s tremendous performance when you’re marvelling at how diligently her features have been disguised. Viewers who are particularly sensitive to over-the-top hair-pieces will also be bothered by Kebbell, who seems to have dressed up as Jim Morrison for Halloween.
The unsentimental yet sympathetic way the film treats its heroine is oddly touching
But if some of the film’s scenes have the air of a costume party, most of them are strikingly committed to the story’s essential squalor and nastiness. Los Angeles is presented as a hellhole: a civilisation on the verge of being overrun by nature and obliterated by the searing sunshine. There is a nerve-jangling shoot-out at the halfway point, and some close-up violence that will make you wince. Kusama’s breakthrough film was Girlfight, a boxing drama starring Michelle Rodriguez, but its knockout blows were gentle compared to the punches and kicks that Erin gives and receives in Destroyer.
Not that the film is grim for the sake of being grim. The screenplay, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, feels thin and under-plotted at first, but it keeps adding gut-wrenching twists and tantalising glimpses of Erin’s history. What’s clever about the script is that it reveals her to be a terrible person who has done terrible things, but the more despicable she is shown to be, the more you care about her.
Destroyer is still a pulpy crime movie rather than a profound tragedy. It’s not too different from the indie neo-noirs that came out in the mid-1990s, shortly after Reservoir Dogs and Heat. But the unsentimental yet sympathetic way it treats its heroine is oddly touching. And it leaves you with the question of who the destroyer of the title is. Could it be Erin, who has demolished her own life and the lives of others? Could it be Silas, who is as much a demon as a human being? Or could it be time itself, which grinds down all of the characters, even if the damage is more obvious on Erin’s face than on anyone else’s?
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