If you thought the make-up department had done a number on Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots, wait until you see Nicole Kidman in Destroyer. At the first glimpse of her red-rimmed eyes and dry, blotchy skin, the word “ravaged” springs to mind. It’s very hard to recognise the aquatic princess from Acquaman, the previous movie in which Our Nic had a starring role.
Kidman plays Erin Bell, an L.A. police detective with a whole crypt-load of skeletons in the closet. We can figure out from an early stage that she’s done a bad, bad thing or two, but it takes a bit of time and several extended flashbacks before all the pieces of the puzzle come together.
The film is an endurance test for Kidman who’s hardly ever off-screen, but she puts in a tremendous performance. For some reason she’s always better playing the dark and dirty roles rather than the refined ones. Oscar or no Oscar, I didn’t think she was at all convincing as Virginia Woolf in The Hours(2002), but as broken-down, desperate, bad cop, Erin Bell, it’s compulsive viewing.
The movie begins with Bell inspecting the corpse of a murder victim. To her LAPD colleagues she has become a kind of joke – a lumbering drunk who long ago lost her edge. But a set of tell-tale details wakes Bell from her stupor. A ghost from the past has come back in the form of a master criminal named Silas (Toby Kebbell). This immediately flicks a switch in Bell’s brain and we realise Silas is the reason she is such a mess today. It’s personal and she wants revenge. She wants to tackle this case single-handedly, she’s willing to break every rule in pursuit of her nemesis.
Isn’t this what fictional detectives are alwaysdoing? If they did everything by the book it’d be dull fare for readers and viewers. Aside from Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, these characters don’t live happy, well-adjusted lives with their nuclear families. They have problems with alcohol and violence, their private lives are an unmitigated disaster in which every relationship falls apart. They’re always getting beaten up or suspended from the force.
Even by the usual standards of the fictional cop, Erin Bell is a hard case. She makes Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch look like a model of middle-class respectability.
Karyn Kusama may have felt that as a female director with a female detective she had go a step further and create characters that were rougher than the usual stereotypes. The entire film is so grimy you’ll feel like taking a shower when you get home. But for those who can get past the relentless shabbiness of the interiors, the down-at-heel grunge of the streets, Destroyerreveals a strange affection for the less glamorous parts of Los Angeles. At times it’s almost beautiful.
As Bell sets out on Silas’s trail we will meet a succession of characters she last saw some twenty years ago, one of them dying of cancer at his mother’s house, another trying to turn his life around. These encounters are interspersed with flashbacks to an undercover operation in which Bell and another cop named Chris (Sebastian Stan) posed as a couple who infiltrated Silas’s gang. These flashbacks are tense affairs because it’s clear that Silas is dangerous, insightful, and probably psychotic.
As the story unfolds we flip back and forth in time, watching how the events of the past would leave permanent scars on Bell’s life. In the meantime there’s a sleazebag lawyer to deal with, and an armed hold-up, in which Bell demonstrates a ferocity and toughness that belies her physical dilapidation. When it comes to confronting pain and danger she’s on a suicide mission, past the point of caring.
While this is going on, a sub-plot sees Bell trying to reconnect with her teenage daughter, Shelby, who has taken up with an utterly inappropriate boyfriend, and immersed herself in the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Given the state of her mothering skills it’s almost more difficult for Bell to deal with Shelby than it is for her to confront murderous criminals.
At no point in this movie can one forsee a happy ending – the bleakness and sense of foreboding never let up. There are, however, enough twists in the plot to keep thwarting our expectations. The final, inevitable confrontation with Silas is not at all what might be expected.
Somewhere within this brutal tale there’s a different story – the story of a sinner seeking redemption, the story of a woman wracked by guilt and shame who wants to put everything right. Bell owes a debt to her lost lover, Chris, and to her dysfunctional daughter, but at no stage does Kusama dwell on this theme, which another director might portray as a spiritual quest. Bell is not the kind of heroine that will emerge from her ordeals like Parsifal into a burst of radiant light, she’s set on a slow, downward spiral into the darkness.
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi
Starring Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Jade Prettyjohn, James Jordan, Zach Villa, Scoot McNairy, Beau Knapp
USA, rated MA 15+, 121 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 March, 2019