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In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman gives a gritty performance of a troubled cop

As a troubled cop in an LA crime thriller Destroyer, Nicole Kidman is clearly committed, if a little too showy.

Destroyer is a rough-edged detective drama that begins in a dark place and goes hunting for depravity. The rogue cop at its core is Erin Bell, played by Nicole Kidman. To say that the Australian actor “stars” in the film would be stretching it – she’s more like a black hole.

Kidman’s face has been rendered skull-like by dense make-up: mottled and contorted, shaded around the eyes. The weathering is so stark that rather than adding to Kidman’s clearly committed performance, it stands out ostentatiously. We know that Bell is beaten down from her first moments on screen, almost crawling from her car and shuffling to a crime scene as if she’s been bent into a small box for a week. The defeated posture was all we needed to see.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

That crime scene – dead body, cash stained with purple dye – triggers a memory from Bell’s earlier life, before she was so tainted: an undercover job with a motley gang led by a viperish psychopath with the appropriately menacing name of Silas (Toby Kebbell). She suspects Silas has returned, so embarks on her own vengeance before he can get his.

Director Karyn Kusama knows the contours of the genre, having worked in horror before (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation), and Destroyer channels other Los Angeles-set noirs – The Big Sleep, Chinatown, LA Confidential, Heat, Drive. It’s a seething city of baked concrete, close to the desert wastes, with poverty and wealth, corruption and criminality in close proximity.

The movement of the plot is Chandleresque, too, labyrinthine and doubling over itself, all headed for a fairly satisfying twist. Yet what gives the film its impetus, and holds our attention the most, is the brutality visited upon Bell both physically and psychologically. This is a character study rather than a pure procedural, a test of how fiercely a scorned person will stalk their prey and what punishment they will accept to get them.

Destroyer is a tough watch. But that’s the point. Kusama’s film is deliberately confrontational. If only we were allowed to wallow in Kidman’s performance instead of being distracted by her eyeshadow. 

IN CINEMAS MARCH 14

★★★1/2

Video: Annapurna Pictures

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.