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It has not received quite as much hype as Matthew McConaughey’s McConaissance but Nicole Kidman’s return from the unfair brink of Hollywood purgatory has been one of the most refreshingly deserved comebacks in recent years. Remember when she was cameo-ing in an Adam Sandler comedy, starring in a low-rent Nic Cage thriller and well, Grace of Monaco-ing? Now she’s battled her way back to the top after an Oscar nomination for Lion, with a hit HBO show, films with Yorgos Lanthimos and Sofia Coppola, an upcoming role in a DC blockbuster and now, two films premiering on this year’s festival circuit.
While on paper at least, her role as a mother struggling to cope with her son’s sexuality in Boy Erased sounds like less of a deviation, her character in Karyn Kusama’s bleak thriller Destroyer feels like something we really haven’t seen from her before. Much has already been made of her physical transformation, as is often the case, but in playing a haunted, mostly unlikable detective she’s pushing a boundary on what we as an audience have come to expect from a lead female character. It’s in this exploration, upending gender assumptions, that the film feels fresh and necessary. It’s in the specifics of the plot, though, where it feels a little musty, the noirish dive into LA’s underworld never going quite deep enough.
Kidman plays Erin Bell, who we first meet as she wakes, yet again, in her car, grimacing at the unbearable brightness of the LA landscape. She stumbles her way to the scene of a murder, one which carries significance to her, a sign that an old foe is back in operation. Years before, Erin went undercover with partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang of criminals, headed up by the malevolent Silas (Toby Kebbell). Through flashback, we start to understand why his reappearance means so much to her and just how far she’s willing to go in order to finally put an end to it all.
There is a double-take physicality to Kidman in Destroyer, causing us to often forget just who we’re watching, but it’s a little too exaggerated for it to work within the surrounding film. The makeup is far too ghoulish, reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s extravagant take on Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, the surreal sensation of watching someone walk around with a Halloween costume while everyone else forgot to dress up. Rather than helping her to disappear within the role, it distracts us and acts as a reminder that this is an actor doing a thing, rather than a person living their life. It’s undeniably fascinating to see a woman play the kind of embittered, grizzled detective we’re used to seeing a man take on and there’s no clumsy attempt to soften her, keeping her as tough-edged and tiresome as her male peers.
Beyond that, though, there’s not much else here that we haven’t seen before. It’s a disappointing backward step for Kusama, whose wonderful, terrifying 2015 thriller The Invitation, brought depth and humanity to genre trappings, a skill she’s sadly not brought to her follow-up. The initial sinister flashbacks tease at something far greater than what’s eventually revealed, especially in a particularly intense game of Russian roulette, but Erin’s great foe is not that great at all. Kebbell, looking like he’s wearing Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000 cosplay, tries to inject some menace but we see so little of him that he struggles to make an impression. There’s also an effectively grimy turn from Tatiana Maslany but this really is a one-woman show.
Kidman fearlessly commits to the filth of it all, whether it’s drunkenly fighting off her daughter’s sleazy boyfriend or jerking off a bed-ridden informant, but her radical transformation and some timeframe trickery can’t mask a plot that feels rather empty. It’s a mechanical noir dressed up as something more substantial and this is especially felt in an ending that drowns in unearned profundity. Destroyer won’t derail the Kidmanaissance but she deserves more than this.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Destroyer review – Nicole Kidman transforms for bitter noir dirge | Toronto film festival 2018