The opening moments of Destroyer (2018) linger on the sun-ravaged face of LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) as she sits in her car. In this quiet, contemplative moment you can feel the weariness emanating off the protagonist before she forces herself out to inspect a corpse tied to a traumatic incident in her past, setting off her one-woman quest for revenge against the one who wronged her. From this moment on, Kidman’s steely performance as Detective Bell hooks you into a hard-boiled world that spans the present and the past and from the streets of Los Angeles to the starkness of the California desert. Director Karyn Kusama’s filmography has always centered around strong female leads and there might be none stronger than Nicole Kidman who physically transforms herself into the embittered, amoral detective through a makeup job that enhances the performance rather than detracts.
Destroyer flits from Erin working her way up the food chain of a gang of bank robbers in the present to almost twenty years prior when she’s a wide-eyed rookie trying to infiltrate the gang, explaining enough to know what happened to cause her to go from the youthful cadet to the harbinger of vengeance we see now. Kidman’s transformation isn’t merely cosmetic, if it were then Destroyer would not nearly be as good a film it is. We see the death of a person’s spirit and how they can go on living far, far beyond the point of return. There’s a line one can follow to see the logic in how Erin started out and ended, and while Destroyer never lets us think for one second she’s anything but a bad cop, whenever she breaks the rules (which is near constant) we understand the very human reasons she does so.
And what a bad cop she is. Throughout the movie, Kidman is a wrecking ball to be reckoned with, taking the savage beatings she endures and then somehow dishing it back out even worse. She’ll throw a suspect into the trunk of her car, confiscate a bag full of guns and run into a bank robbery with her submachine gun blazing so long as it gets her one step closer to gang leader Silas (Toby Kebbell) all while calls from her concerned partner and the rest of the department go unanswered. In the middle of the investigation, she also has to contend with a truant teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) headed down her own wrong path, forcing Erin to confront her past failings as a mother. It’s a little distracting, if not for pacing issues than at the very least to see how the rest of the cast’s performances pale in comparison to Kidman’s. Silas is set up to be more of a criminal mastermind than what he actually is and the subplot of Bell dealing with her daughter’s douchebag boyfriend adds very little to the stakes.
There are some pacing issues as well. Destroyer is a bit longer than it needs to be and the events of the past are stretched to the absolute limit, though some of the quieter moments are the most powerful. The combination of the ever-present sun beating down on our antiheroine giving a thousand yard stare, all while Theodore Shapiro’s brooding soundtrack plays in the background of an inescapable Los Angeles that would have felt perfectly in sync in a Michael Mann movie, invites us to marinate in the same self-hatred that’s been consuming her alive for years until the snap into anger becomes all but inevitable.
While Destroyer can never really be said to transcend the genre and most can guess what specific tragedy happened in the past, Kusama directs the hell out of every scene from start to finish and gets one of the best performances imaginable out of Nicole Kidman. Destroyer never lets up on its downbeat tone or cuts its protagonist a break for one second, and during the entire span of Bell’s journey to Silas we know there is going to be no peace at the end, no forgiveness, no making up for past mistakes, there’s only her destroying herself and everyone else around her in the process. The combination of Kidman’s performance and Kusama’s direction really elevates what could have been just another bad cop out for revenge movie into something memorable.