Police Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) lives in a state of mere existence. Since surviving a harrowing undercover operation nearly 20 years ago, Bell has struggled to deal with the trauma and is now a ridiculed, loose cannon cop and a failure of a parent. But when her nemesis from her undercover days resurfaces, Bell decides to get revenge and embarks on a journey that could see her lose what little she has left.
There’s no doubting the pedigree of director Karyn Kusama. With films such as Jennifer’s Body, Aeon Flux, The Invitation and a ton of television credits to her name, Kusama is part of the wave of female directors currently reinvigorating the film industry. Already a hit at film festivals, Destroyer is no doubt Kusama’s most artfully made movie to date. Sadly, it doesn’t quite deliver the goods.
Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, does. Her dedicated and skilful portrayal of Erin Bell is full of dark depths. Thoroughly deserving of her Golden Globe win for the role, Kidman’s interpretation is full of nuance. Bell is bullheaded, independent, haunted, vulnerable, inept and capable all at the same time.
Reminiscent of Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster (2003), Kidman’s physical appearance impacts from the start. And whilst it clearly shows the dedication of the actress (not to mention the skill of the make-up and wardrobe department), her appearance is so extreme that when Bell stands alongside her fellow characters, she looks like an anorexic zombie. So alarmingly out of place is it, that it actually shatters the illusion of the film. It just isn’t possible for someone to look so deathly and for others not to have them hospitalised. And this was something that nagged right through to the end.
Stepping away from this, Kidman is joined by some outstanding talent. Toby Kebbell imbues Bell’s arch nemesis, Silas, with emptiness and cruelty in equal measure, while Tatiana Maslany captivates as his girlfriend and partner-in-crime, Petra.
While the film delicately and seamlessly intertwines the events of both the present and past, it does not satisfy in terms of plot. Bell’s all-consuming journey of revenge is one so brutal and sadistic that it needs to be fuelled by an equally brutal and sadistic enemy and, despite Kebbell’s solid performance, the character Silas just wasn’t as ‘evil’ as he needed to be in order to lend legitimacy to Bell’s need for revenge. As a result, Bell’s actions – in both the past and present – were more a result of her own psychology, rather than just the direct result of the horrors she experienced during her time undercover investigating Silas.
With this in mind, the deeper meaning of the story seems to be one of innate, self-destructive selfishness. And whilst this meaning was present, the film failed to explain and illuminate Bell’s deeper psychology in a way that was emotionally engaging. As a result, the main character felt completely unrelatable and left this audience member feeling completely detached.
Despite this, the film has many brilliant elements. From cinematography and acting to direction and sound, it has a tangible sense of artistry that delights on so many levels, not to mention a film noir sensibility that many will love.
But it’s a slow burn and one that doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the genre asides from its female gender dynamic. The selfishness of the main character is so extreme and so lacking in vital explanation (which might provide a way for viewers to engage with her in some way) that it doesn’t resonate emotionally. Although perhaps that was the point: To highlight the nature and aloneness of a mind so entrenched in its own selfishness.