It’s a shame that Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer was released in during the last week of 2018, lost in the shuffle of holiday blockbusters and awards fodder. A sun-washed yet grimy and nihilistic slow-burn neo-noir doomed to obscurity, it boasts one of Nicole Kidman’s most compelling and fearless performances.
She goes all-out as alcoholic, dissolute LAPD detective Erin Bell, whose life, to put it mildly, is a raging dumpster fire on the lido deck of a sinking ship. Every bit of it shows on her lined, splotched, sunken-eyed face courtesy of some truly often make-up and prosthetics work. A hard-drinking loner, her fellow officers cringe when they see her stagger onto a crime scene; her relationship with her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) is only slightly better than the one she has with her rebellious teen daughter (Jade Pettyjohn).
A parallel plot unfolds via flashbacks, shedding light on Bell’s misery: Sixteen years earlier, as an eager young FBI agent, she and her partner/lover Chris (Sebastian Stan) went undercover to bust a gang of bank robbers run by Manson-esque hardcase Silas (Toby Kebbell). Not only does the mission fail miserably, Bell and Chris make questionable decisions that pave the way for her current state of existential ruin.
The discovery of a certain corpse with a dye-stained $100 bill suggests Silas has returned from hiding, and compels Bell to tie up loose ends score some retribution before the past catches up with her.
Hollywood is by its nature a youth- and beauty-oriented place, and most actresses in their fifties struggle to find worthwhile work. Kidman has instead flourished, turning in notable performances on television (Big Little Lies, Top of the Lake: China Girl) and in film (How to Talk to Girls at Parties, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Boy Erased). She even manages to rise above the special effects in Aquaman, which, ironically, hit theaters in wide release on the same day as Destroyer.
At times there’s a shortage of urgency at times, but Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi use those stretches to set up the viewer for well-timed jolts of the unexpected. There’s a lingering atmosphere of dread permeating Destroyer, and Kidman is in masterful control throughout even — and especially — when Bell is in moral freefall.