There are secret shames we tuck away, bury deep into the darkest corners of our souls in hopes of forgetting them. But that shame doesn’t disintegrate. It festers. It poisons. It twists us into horrible things. That is the dark lesson lying within of Destroyer, a challenging crime-drama from director Karyn Kusama.
Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell, a caustic cop haunted by her past. 15 years ago, when she was a rookie, an undercover assignment went very wrong. People died. The kingpin and his closest cronies fled. Over the years, Bell’s life has turned to tatters. She has a broken marriage, a daughter who loathes her, and a serious drinking problem. But when a fresh clue falls in her path, Bell is on the hunt, hungry for redemption, and revenge.
Kidman’s chiseled an incredible career by giving verve and depth to glamor girls and prim mothers. But here, Kusama gives her a rare role for an actress. Lumbering about in a shabby leather jacket, ill-fitting jeans, a shaggy afterthought of a haircut, and make-up intended to weather her famous face, Kidman is transformed. Her Bell is the kind of sneering rogue-cop whose long been played by stars like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Mel Gibson. But Kusama and Kidman reject the allure of this American archetype and the vicarious thrills of revenge fantasy. Instead, they offer a ruthlessly gritty and riveting thriller that pulls no punches.
Kidman’s cop has the swagger of a broken-hipped horse. Her voice is a cracked snarl. She carries with her an air of defeat and stale beer. She wins no one over with charm, but instead employs guilt, threats, bribes, and when that fails spiteful favors or a brutal pistol-whipping. Her methods are messy. Her mistakes are grim. Her journey is slippery, seedy, and disturbing. And Kidman slays every frame.
A stellar supporting cast came to play, and at Kidman’s dizzyingly high level. Sebastian Stan brings a steely sincerity as Bell’s undercover partner. With a crooked smile, Toby Kebbell sinks his teeth into the film’s merciless crime boss, while Tatiana Maslany brings a radioactive rage as his merciless moll. Jade Pettyjohn repeatedly faces off against Kidman in tense mother-daughter battles, and each time brews stomach-churning angst, and finally a heart-cracking tenderness. Then, right in the middle of this unpredictable ride of suspense and mystery swans Bradley Whitford to steal some scenes as a sketchy lawyer.
With Get Out and Cabin In The Woods, Whitford’s re-adjusted his niche from West Wing good-guy to mirthful champion for a dangerous status quo. So when Kidman crashes into a posh mansion to discover a polo shirt-sporting Whitford grinning, the shrewd script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi needs little exposition. This casting fills in the backstory. And Whitford’s explosive smugness in the face of Kidman’s rampaging cop swiftly distills how hopeless her mission may be.
By leaning away from glossy Hollywood conventions like cool cops, steamy sex scenes, and the glorification of violence, Destroyer grapples with the consequences of this anti-hero’s actions in a way rarely seen in the genre. Yet there’s a live wire of humor in Destroyer, which sparks amid the darkness, giving crackles of relief to its bleak drama. Some of this humor comes from Kidman’s no-fucks-to-give attitude. Some comes from Whitford’s furious outbursts at his teen son’s batting practice. One comes from the unexpected attention drawn to a ceramic owl, and some is born from the recognized lunacy of human interaction. And even as it embarrasses our disgraced anti-heroine, it urges us to empathize with her, even as we cringe at her actions.
Remarkably, Kusama has crafted a compelling crime-drama that plays as a sharply comical yet scathing commentary on the glorification of rogue cop. Kidman’s performance lures is in not with booming charm, but with a concentrated resolve and haunting despair. With a twisted mystery you’ll need to watch more than once, her trainwreck of a hero calls into question our eagerness to cheer any loose canon with gun and a badge.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com