As Erin Bell, an L.A. cop on a revenge mission, the actress undergoes her most extreme physical transformation to date. (Yes, even more extreme than her Oscar-winning role in The Hours) The first time we see her, she’s waking up from a night spent in her car. Her vivid blue eyes are puffy, glassy and rimmed with red, her face a connect-the-dots of sleepless nights and stress wrinkles. Her hair, cropped short and style-less, is the shade of brownish, tepid dishwater. But far more than hair and makeup magic, what’s most impressive is the extent to which Kidman uses her own body. Her gait, usually so graceful, is utterly transformed as she bow-leggedly clomps down hard on the ground; her shoulders are slumped, the picture of someone who’s been wounded and can’t bear to go through that again; and her speech is raspy and brusque — when it’s not slurred from drink.
Her performance, nominated for a Golden Globe, is a beacon in a film that tends to gets lost in its own convoluted plot. It makes Destroyer not just worth seeing, but worth revisiting, over and over again.
Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s sometimes clunky script toggles back and forth between the present and Erin’s memories. As a young cop, she and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) were sent to pose as a couple to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers in the California desert in an undercover assignment that ends in tragedy. But when that group’s leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell) resurfaces in the present, Erin embarks on a solo investigation to bring him, girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) and their remaining acolytes down, and by doing so, raises more demons from her past than she had planned.
Kidman plays Erin as a wounded cowgirl, a woman who has been so consumed with the traumas of her past that she’s failed to actually live her life. Her 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) resents Erin’s absences (both physical and mental), and gets back at her mom by getting drunk at underground clubs and shacking up with a scumbag in his 20s. Erin’s ex, Ethan (Scooter McNair), can’t get through to her either. She’s built a wall of brutal anger, violence and alcohol around a wound that’s still too raw to nurse.
From the flashbacks, we get to see a fuller picture of Erin — she was always tough, but not this damaged. We learn that she and Chris caught real feelings during their assignment. The audience is meant to question what happened to Chris, and by proxy, the root of her trauma. Its eventual revelation lacks the kind of impact it should have.
Director Karyn Kusama is no stranger to portrayals of female rage. Her 2009 critical flop turned cult classic, Jennifer’s Body, was rife with anger, betrayal and dashed hopes. But Destroyer turns up those simmering emotions to white-hot fury, the likes of which I’ve never seen a woman — especially one so purposefully unattractive — display on screen.
In one scene, Erin clumsily tries to play nice with a man she suspects to be one of Silas’ accomplices (Bradley Whitford), as he taunts her from within the perceived safe haven of his Palos Verdes mansion. Eventually, she gives up and kicks the shit out of him in front of his son. It’s a visceral, almost stupidly violent act — but it feels good to see a 51-year-old actress lose it like that in 2018.
Julie Kirkwood’s cinematography gorgeously captures the stark contrasts between the glamorous L.A. we usually see on film, and the seedy, dusty, crumbling underbelly that Erin operates within. In her leather jacket and sturdy boots, she always looks a little sweaty from a mix of both heat and the aftermath of a night spent drinking.
A lot of the discussion about this film has centered around the idea of Erin as a female-stand in for a type of role usually occupied by men. But Kidman and Kusama’s approach to Erin is distinctly feminine. She’s just not the kind of woman we’re used to seeing.
One scene particularly come to mind as one that a male character would never experience. In the first, Erin interrogates a member of Silas’ old gang, who’s just been freed from prison on compassionate release. Weak and writhing in pain on a hospital bed, he still demands a sexual favor from her before he’ll give anything up. Kidman’s face as Erin gives in to the most impersonal hand job in cinematic history has special resonance post #MeToo.
Destroyer is not a perfect movie — but it leaves its mark.