Destroyer is an LA noir starring Nicole Kidman ‘as you have never seen her before’. Her hair is terrible. Her eyes are red-rimmed with dark circles. Her lips are dry, flaking. Her skin is sun-damaged and liver-spotted. Her walk is a leaden shuffle. Just me on a regular day, in other words, but she is being hailed as ‘brave’, of course. This may or may not be so — I can only say that I went to the corner shop just now and Ahmet did not applaud me for leaving the house looking as I do or offer me an Oscar — but it is distracting. I don’t know what absorbed more of my attention, the story, her character, or just how bad she looks. Actually, I can answer that. How bad she looks.
She plays Erin Bell, an LAPD detective who we know is a wreck from the first shot, which shows her waking up in her car beneath a grimy underpass and opening those bleary, red-rimmed eyes. She attends a homicide, approaching the corpse with her leaden, hungover shuffle. (She also has a booze habit.) It’s clear she is not wanted round here. Her fellow cops tell her to go away, sleep it off, leave it to them. But she can’t because, as we will discover, Erin knows the dead body is a message from her past — and not just any old past, as it’s a past she must put right.
Erin had been embroiled in an armed-robbery gang 17 years earlier while working undercover for the FBI. Bit by bit, flashbacks fill in what happened, what went wrong, why she is as she is today — what was the trauma? — and why she seeks vengeance so single-mindedly. This is sometimes horribly sleazy — a dying ex-gang member who is diseased and covered in sores won’t give her any information unless she gives him a handjob — and sometimes horribly violent. She pistol-whips a bent lawyer. She is brutally assaulted herself, more than once. But on and on she goes, working as a lone wolf. This, she makes plain, is no one’s business but her own.
So it’s hardly a thrillingly new or daring scenario. Indeed, down the years, how many times have you asked yourself of such cops in such movies: what does your boss think you are doing all day? If I worked for an accountancy firm, could I engineer weeks away from the office without anyone asking where I was? But, fair play, it is unusual that it is a woman. And not Nicolas Cage, say.
Directed by Karyn Kusama with a screenplay by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay, the film is brave in some senses as it never tries to soften Erin or make her relatable. She is humourless. She shows no tenderness, only fury. She has failed to mother her daughter. She picks fights with the long-suffering ex-boyfriend who has raised the daughter on her behalf. She loses it in bars. And rage, as a facet of the female experience, is not often explored on screen. So you have to give it that, but it is a demanding, grim watch, with a mood that never lightens — brace yourself, diseased-man handjob coming! Brace yourself, brutal pistol-whipping coming! — and half the while all you are thinking is: ‘Look! It’s Nicole Kidman!’
Her performance is remarkable in that it isn’t like anything she’s done before. You can’t deny that, and you do have to admire the risk she is taking. Plus she does properly go for it, storming banks mid-heist with her gun held aloft, vomiting in sinks, shuffling along in that leaden way, always talking in a broken, low voice through those dry, flaking lips. But you don’t see Erin. You only see Nicole Kidman, deglamorised. And that’s what the film becomes about. Still, narratively, there is a smart twist at the end, one that suggests Erin has only ever been hunting herself. But the more you think about it, the less sense it can make. And now I’m going to the post office as is. Aren’t I brave?