Mesmerising arthouse meets cops and robbers.
First she was bashing sea people through walls with a trident in Aquaman, now she’s a dirty cop with an axe to grind when her past comes calling. It’s more clear than ever that Nicole Kidman is enjoying somewhat of a badass renaissance. Destroyer, the latest work from Aeon Flux and The Invitation director Karyn Kusuma, is a thrilling study of a flawed woman who’s let herself be possessed by anger and enraged by guilt, under the lens of heist genre magic and arthouse panache.
LAPD detective Erin Belle (Kidman) is forced to chase up members of an old gang she was previously embedded in as part of a case, after a John Doe murder confirms the heartless leader (Toby Kebbell) is making a return. She’s a far sight from the officer she once was though; gaunt, tired, surly, brutalised by nightmarish memories with her partner (Sebastian Stan).
Kusuma gives life to Phil Hay and Matt Manfried’s screenplay with stunning refinement. She tangles with the audience’s comprehension of time slyly, implementing a heavy use of flashbacks to reinforce the emotional depth of Erin’s current predicament, while putting wheels in motion that some may take for granted until the credits roll. Rarely does the film loosen its grip, maintaining boa constrictor tension in fantastically formed sequences – some aren’t necessarily original either. A gloriously sadistic game of Russian Roulette has obvious roots in The Deer Hunter, and some of the later robberies riff on the piercing autumnal palette of Hell or High Water. But Kusuma injects a simple vendetta into the heart of the story, and you really feel that vindictive energy like a pulse.
The cinematographer, Julie Kirkwood, plays with the accepted norms of lighting to visceral effect, enforcing blinding close-ups and enhancing conflicts with character-focused shots. Rarely are eyes off of Kidman; we watch as she lays a fine beating on a former West Wing resident, and whips out at an automatic weapon from her trunk like John Wick’s sun-kissed cousin. For such a renowned and known actress, it’s a remarkably unrecognisable performance, balancing internal fury that’s “burned a circuit in her brain” under the guise of an impressive physical transformation. An burned down cop in an urban crime saga is not a role that many would pair with the Australian megastar, but this great bit of casting has gifted Kidman a career-best turn.
If Greenwoodian was a accepted adjective for scores (it will be some day), it would certainly be fitting when discussing Theodore Shapiro’s immersive composition, packed with bass and pulse-pounding repetitions any time Erin has a gun in her hand, but scoring the more honed-in scenes with unorthodox, cerebral ease. Strong music pairs well with the atmospheric sound design, capturing the crunch of gravel with the smallest breaths. While Kidman’s make-up is stunningly realised though, the decision to place a hilarious wig upon Kebbell’s head is mind-boggling, resembling a sort of gangster Tommy Wiseau. Though he holds the screen better than the more tedious domestic drama, feeling like an unnecessary layer to humanise Erin amidst her sketchy backstory – but her motivations are already evoke compassion. In many ways, Destroyer would be well-placed in a double feature with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here; both are unconventional, captivating, admirably brash and come from two fine (female) filmmaking talents.
Kidman gives the performance of a lifetime in a gruelling, impassioned penance parable.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm