In Karyn Kusama’s gritty and grimy crime thriller Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, a grizzled LA detective only James Ellroy could love and gives one of the best performances of her career.
Kusama, with her best film since her 2000 Sundance debut Girlfight (starring a then-unknown Michelle Rodriguez), wastes no time getting to it opening with an unrecognizable Kidman; gaunt, teeth yellowed, skin like paper just about to tear. She lumbers, drags herself really, like a zombie from The Walking Dead, towards a crime scene. She checks out the dead body in front of her. Shaved head a three-dot tattoo on his neck, money with dye pack stains strewn about; she intimates to the two detectives at the site that might know the deceased.
Back at the precinct she gets a hand-written piece of mail with a $100 bill with dye pack stains on it. Someone’s sending Erin a message. This sets her off on a hunt for Silas (Toby Kebbell), a murderous bank robber Bell was working to take down in a former life as an undercover FBI agent. After a sting operation gone wrong, Silas went missing but unfinished business brings the case back into Bell’s focus and it becomes her sole mission to right a wrong and exacting vengeance.
While the screenplay goes through the traditional beats of a hardboiled detective story – seedy nightclubs, local gunrunners, a final shot at redemption – the unconventional structure and even more unconventional mother-daughter dynamic as Erin tries to manage her rebellious 16-year old daughter Shelby (great work by young actress Jade Pettyjohn), screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Kusama’s The Invitation) set us up for something that far away seems familiar but up close it something altogether different.
One by one, Bell tracks down Silas’s former cabal of bank robbers including a dying scumbag who demands a handjob before divulging any information on Silas’s whereabouts to Petra (a short but killer performance from Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany). Every new interaction in the city brings us closer to that sting gone wrong, padding out information with flashbacks of 17 years prior that feature Kidman (through the power of some fantastic anti-aging CGI from Lola Visual Effects), with her partner Chris (a solid Sebastian Stan), rehearsing their life stories and locking down their characters so they can infiltrate Silas’s gang.
Going completely rogue and throwing every law book out the window, Bell’s hellbent fury and Kidman’s capacity to embody it become a series Molotov cocktails set off around the city. It’s genuinely thrilling to see a traditionally male anti-hero gender switch here. No one can ever accuse Nicole Kidman of playing it safe and she definitely doesn’t here; going off the deep end in her myopic quest for vengeance-cum-justice, including beating the shit out of a snarky Bradley Whitford in front of his son and instigating a bank shootout that would make fans of Heat proud.
Even if the structure doesn’t always sync up and the script tends to overcomplicate itself, it’s Kidman’s go for broke performance, Kusama’s fearless direction and a superbly thrilling third act that make this high-octane neo-noir impossible to ignore.