It seemed like those Nicole Kidman set photos from Karyn Kusama’s stark LA crime noir Destroyer had been around for years, before the film itself was granted an uber-limited theatrical release and quickly pushed aside at the end of 2018. Kidman, looking haggard and sallow and baked to a crisp by the unforgiving SoCal sun, plays Erin Bell, a detective in the City of Angels whose troubled past has left her a husk of a human. But Kidman’s look is so off putting, so uncanny, that it’s all there is to the first act of the picture. The story that unfolds is a distant second early on, but fortunately the second half settles into a rather riveting – if deathly serious – Point Break riff.
Destroyer jumps back and forth in time as we follow Bell from a fresh-faced cop infiltrating a sadistic LA gang with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), to this strange, warped, broken woman in the “present day” thread. Current day Erin drinks, drifts around town, and has quite a problem on her hands with a rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) whose new boyfriend is up to no good. The setup of all these elements stumble out of the film while we adjust to Kidman’s look.
Comparisons were made to Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster, but there is something more naturalistic about Theron’s sun-poisoned serial killer; it’s difficult to pin down, what is so distracting about Kidman’s appearance, but there’s no getting around it early on while you try, frustratingly, to put pieces in place. Kusama has a specific vision of this Los Angeles, sharp concrete angles and open spaces, heat, death, not a single shot of ocean water to be seen. She is going for a mood, you can see it, but the story isn’t cooperating through the first hour.
The second half of Destroyer pivots to something altogether more engaging and exciting, once you’re able to adjust to Kidman’s appearance (mileage may vary from viewer to viewer). The flashbacks to Erin’s undercover sting, her relationship with Chris, and the eventual disaster that ruined her life almost two decades prior are able to punch up the plot, and a tense bank robbery sequence shows Kusama’s abilities to handle action well. There is a minor twist, some reveals along the way, and plenty of terrific camerawork as the film draws to a more satisfying close than what could have ever been predicted in the beginning.
Despite the look, Nicole Kidman is giving everything to her role here. It’s been an incredible few years for the Aussie legend, and Destroyer is another daring move from an actress who seems to be settling into an incredible second act. This is also a film almost entirely about Kidman’s Erin Bell, so much so that the supporting players practically don’t register as characters sometimes. They are all fine, and don’t distract, but in the end they all feel like ciphers put in place to tell Erin’s story.
Destroyer is a half-misstep for Kusama, whose last film, The Invitation, was one of the best of 2015 (and Jennifer’s Body is thankfully getting the cultural reappraisal it deserves). It’s tough to fault her direction, which shines in the second half; the fault is more in the meandering opening act and DOA delivery of these first few scenes than anything Kusama tries. Again, though, it all comes down to Kidman, who is able to fight through a strange makeup decision to turn the film into something worth seeing.