In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman is cast against type as Erin Bell, a Los Angeles homicide detective haunted by her past. It’s a startling performance from Kidman and one that could have put her in the running to feature in the best actress category at this year’s Academy Awards. We can wonder about the reasons for the omission another time. Destroyer is a middling thriller that benefits enormously from the work of its outstanding lead.
When a body is discovered on the streets of LA, Erin Bell comes to believe that the murder is connected to a botched undercover operation she undertook 17 years ago. Alongside FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan), she was sent to infiltrate a gang of hard-drinking and partying bank robbers led by the pseudo-philosophical Silas (Toby Kebbell). However, something went wrong during the gang’s last job, the bloody and violent consequences leaving Bell traumatised and damaged.
Now, she is convinced that Silas has resurfaced to kick-start another wave of robberies. Determined to bring the ruthless ringleader to justice, Bell takes off on a solo mission to track down the remaining gang members and locate where Silas has been hiding all these years. The story unfurls through flashbacks as a lone wolf Bell hunts her prey through the streets of Los Angeles.
Kidman gives it her all in a commanding performance that overshadows everything else here. The actress submerges herself into the role and goes so far as to transform physically to capture the unsympathetic yet utterly compelling persona of Bell, a fractured husk worn out by hate and drinking.
Bell’s face is bloated, but her body is frail beneath a large, black leather jacket and denim jeans. She shuffles onto crime scenes, still drunk from the night before, only to endure the ridicule of her colleagues who can’t wait to be rid of her. Her life is in shambles: the detective has also alienated her ex-partner Ethan (Scoot McNairy) and teenage daughter Shelby (Jane Pettyjohn). It’s one of Kidman’s most impressive performances in the role of a morally unreliable cop trying to settle up with her past.
Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, The Invitation) keeps things moving at a brisk pace as tension builds and events move towards the inevitable final confrontation. There are some striking lighting effects which make the streets of LA appear at once too-bright and out-of focus, echoing the effects of a hangover. It’s an ambitious piece of work that aims to deliver more than a by-the-numbers thriller.
However, Destroyer doesn’t fully realise its ambitions. The flashbacks are heavily condensed, with the result that they lack any depth. The supporting characters are underdeveloped with most of the cast reduced to blink-and you’ll miss them cameos. In particular, Sebastian Stan is underused here as the good guy Chris while the ever-watchable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) does a lot of work with her too-brief turn as Silas’s former lover Petra.
Out-of-sync storytelling and flashbacks are having a moment in the detective genre. Destroyer may have been better-suited to the small screen and the longer format would have given more room to the story to develop. There are brief glimpses onscreen of an eerie and dreamlike atmosphere similar to that being conjured in shows like HBO’s Sharp Objects. One could argue that Destroyer is the best series of True Detective that will never be made.
While it’s fun to wonder what might have been, that’s not what we have: an interesting thriller dominated by Kidman’s performance. There is much to like here, even if it is difficult to love. Eimear Dodd
Destroyer is out on wide release.