Nicole Kidman is relentless in the fascinating, ambitiously pitch-black, often off-putting police drama Destroyer. Karyn Kusama’s follow-up to the slow-burn horror gem The Invitation is a humorless, grim experience, one bursting with graphic violence and sun-soaked sadness. (It’s like season two of True Detective condensed to two hours.) Yet there are moments of great beauty and real power. And, above all else, there is a badge-wielding, pistol-whipping Kidman, unleashed and on fire.
There is no question who the title refers to—Kidman’s Erin Bell is a bruised, bruising force of destructive nature. An unwashed LAPD detective with a laundry list of enemies, she is both a tremendously frustrating character and a heartbreaking one. Bell’s first appearance is downright shocking; it’s not the first time the actress has dramatically changed her appearance onscreen—most famously, of course, was her Virginia Woolf in The Hours—but never has she disappeared so effectively.
Erin Bell is no star detective. She’s a joke to most of her colleagues, a loose cannon with no filter. The reasons for her demeanor, her anger, and even her appearance become clear during the course of Destroyer. It begins with the discovery of a dead body, a fresh corpse surrounded with dollars and marked with a distinctive tattoo—three black dots—on the back of the neck. Bell’s tossed off comment to the investigating cops about knowing who committed the crime is met with disbelief. And why wouldn’t it? Bell is not seen as someone to trust.
This was not always the case, though. Her backstory is slowly revealed via flashback. There is a young Bell, ready to embark on a dangerous undercover assignment. And there is Chris, a fellow officer joining her undercover, played by Sebastian Stan. The duo infiltrated a gang of young criminals, a stint that ended with the proverbial robbery-gone-wrong. The ringleader, played by Toby Kebbell—clearly ready to tackle the title role in a Gene Simmons biopic—is a charismatic psychopath. He’s also a survivor, a figure still lurking a decade-and-a-half after the robbery and ready to toy with Bell.
Kebbel’s Silas is not the only member of the gang still alive. There are others, like the damaged Petra, played by Orphan Black’s ultra-talented Tatiana Maslany. On the periphery are individuals with nebulous links to that long-ago crime, like a smarmy, wealthy go-between played by a scene-stealing Bradley Whitford. As all involved discover, Bell will stop at nothing to find Silas, and get revenge for what went down so many years before.
Kusama directs with the fury she brought to 2000’s Girlfight, and stages the action with precision. A show-stopping robbery sequence mid-film would make Michael Mann nod with approval, and the final reveal of that fateful, long-ago crime is a knockout. Yet overall, Destroyer cannot be classified as a satisfying experience. The story is too predictable, the villains too underdeveloped, Sebastian Stan too underutilized. The scenes between Bell, her daughter, and her daughter’s older boyfriend are stale. And the final, long-awaited reunion between Bell and Silas is a dud.
However, Kidman gives one of her best performances, and Kusama keeps us interested even when we know what’s coming. In its final moments, Destroyer reaches for transcendence, and damn-near pulls it off. A re-creation of an earlier-referenced moment remembered by both mother and daughter, it is downright gorgeous—a breathtaking sight in an ugly film. While this pervading unpleasantness makes Destroyer a hard film to watch, it’s clearly what Kusama intended. If she wanted to craft a divisive, unsettling experience centered around a lead performance to remember, then mission accomplished. Not every filmmaker and star can pull off such an effective feat.
Destroyer screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens on December 25.