Playing an LAPD detective with a secret past, Kidman embodies her darkest character in the twisty, pulsating ‘Destroyer’
Despite having started acting in 1983, the past number of years have featured the finest work of Nicole Kidman’s career. Winning both an Oscar and an Emmy in the last fifteen years along with a number of other great performances to call her own, Kidman remains in the conversation for best actress working right now through to this day. But it is safe to say that there is a specific kind of character that she excels at more than any other: cold, business-minded, wealthy women. There is something incredibly aristocratic about how Nicole Kidman looks that it is easy to buy her as a beautiful starlet (Moulin Rouge!, Grace of Monaco, Nine) or a villainous woman with something to hide (Paddington, The Beguiled, Stoker), or the homemaker who watches the world fall apart around her (Boy Erased, Rabbit Hole, Big Little Lies).
Kidman is almost impossibly pretty, like a statue come to life. But it is when she dirties herself up and changes how she looks entirely that the Nicole Kidman audiences love becomes a different person entirely. Throwing on a fake nose made her Virginia Woolf performance in The Hours an Oscar-winner. A messy wig and heavy makeup lured audiences into her powerful role in Lion. And now with Destroyer, Kidman takes on her most unnatural look to date. Ratty brown hair, a raspy voice, a fake nose that changes her entire face, and more physical changes turn an actress known for playing multiple members of royalty (see this year’s Aquaman, for example) into a funhouse mirror version of herself. It is almost distracting for the first half of Destroyer, leaving you wondering “why cast Kidman in the first place?” But by the film’s end, you can’t help but realize that it isn’t the physical that makes Nicole Kidman such a great actress. It’s the emotional power she brings that keeps her so beloved.
Kidman’s Erin Bell is a disgraced LAPD detective who has spent the last decade-and-a-half drunk following a blown undercover operation. But when evidence turns up that leads her to realize that her past might be coming back to haunt her, Bell goes to incredible measures in order to finish what she started year prior. Kidman has played law enforcement officers before, but none so hardened as Erin Bell. This kind of take-no-prisoners cop role is very rarely given to a woman, and if Destroyer came out even a few years ago, I could see someone like Al Pacino or Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson in the main role. But Kidman brings vitality to it that feels unnatural at times. Bell is a woman possessed, prepared to burn every bridge in her life to get her target.
Flashing between to the original undercover operation and the nearly twenty years later present day, Kidman allows her on-screen transformation to slip, showing how time has ravaged this once bright-eyed deputy into the woman she is today. As actors like Tatiana Maslany and Sebastian Stan and Toby Kebbell filter through the film, they age and change physically as time passes. But Kidman is the only one that the audience is forced to look at. Director Karyn Kusama repeatedly just holds the image on Kidman’s eyes, her skin bleached by the Los Angeles sun and heat. But as she goes through the warpath to find a former kingpin she had hoped never to see again, Kidman’s performance changes. Three specific moments in the last act of the film have Erin Bell breakdown, each in a completely different way. Through tears and agony and anger and love, Kidman makes sure that every reaction feels natural. The character mutates from mindless killer to heartbroken lover to absentee mother and on and on, Kidman nailing each emotional turn.
Destroyer as a whole is very good, and the twisty nature of the story keeps you guessing as to what happened long ago and what could happen next. Director Kusama and the writing team of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi create a Los Angeles that feels like hell (similar in ways to their previous collaboration of The Invitation). Borrowing as much from Terrence Malick’s love of environment to Michael Mann’s love of crime in Los Angeles, the movie creeps into your mind like a nightmare by the end of the film. And haunting it all is Kidman, giving her finest movie performance in years and proving that she isn’t just a face. She is a firebrand, a talent like no other. She takes a role and inhabits it so well that audiences are forced into captivity, left beaten and abused as badly as the characters she can play. Kidman controls empathy better than anyone else out there. She is a one-woman Destroyer.