10 out of 10
Nicole Kidman – Erin Bell
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Los Angeles police detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is exhausted. Her relationships are in the toilet; her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) barely acknowledges that she’s alive, and her bosses at the LAPD are constantly looking for her to check in at her job, which she barely works. She is haunted, broken, she can’t stop drinking, and she seemingly has alienated anyone who has ever crossed her path. But when a bullet-riddled body surfaces, the death catapults Erin straight into her past – an undercover job gone south, a murderous bank robber named Silas (Toby Kebbell), and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) whose relationship with Erin grows increasingly complicated.
To reveal more of the plot of Karyn Kusama’s amazing Destroyer would be a huge disservice. This film needs to wash over you, as the story reveals itself slowly, and we are given witness to the devastation that is Erin Bell’s life. We follow her throughout, as she shambles through the wreckage that is her daily existence, trying desperately to connect with a daughter that wants nothing to do with her, and waiting for a judgment that may never come. We can see through her despair at a former life enriched with possibilities, and just when we think we have a grasp on the scope of her tragedy, Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi drop pieces of information that bring us ever further into her darkness.
If this were a story told from a man’s perspective, Erin Bell would be yet another police character in a very long line of them – grizzled, hard drinking, tough guy who can hold their own in a fight and who we feel confident will overcome their own struggles and obstacles and save the day. We’ve seen a million of those movies over the years. But Karyn Kusama is utterly uninterested in that story. These times have changed, in how we look at the police, and how we look at the roles of both women and men. Even the possibility of redemption seems out of Erin’s grasp, and the further down her path she travels, the more Erin seems to make peace with that fact. She is a monster, but perhaps, while she may not find peace for herself, she can lay the groundwork for the possibility of that peace for the others who will follow her.
This is, hands down, the best work Nicole Kidman has ever done. She will almost certainly garner an Oscar nomination over her performance here, and it would be well-deserved. I just hope people who write about this film do not steer the conversation about her performance and reduce it to a simple foundation job, because anyone who does that should be instantly suspect. Often Hollywood will diminish a performance by an actress down to lighting and makeup, and it’s disrespectful and insulting to do that – to Kidman, or anyone. Kidman’s Erin Bell is a remarkable achievement because in every moment of her work, as we see her current existence and in flashback, we are seeing a life devastated by bad choices and terrible, inexorable fate. It’s extremely difficult for any actor to play the journey that Erin Bell takes in Destroyer, but Kidman makes it look like she’s living this life and not simply acting it. There are cop performances over the years that have become iconic, like Gene Hackman in The French Connection, or Al Pacino in Serpico. Kidman’s work here absolutely deserves to be ranked among them.
Much like Denis Villaneuve’s Arrival, Kusama plays a bit with time and the sequence of events, but when all is revealed in the film’s final moments, we see the full extent of the ruin in Erin Bell’s wake. Destroyer is exquisitely shot by Julie Kirkwood, and her eye never glamorizes the decay and never romanticizes Erin Bell’s world. I love how she shoots, and Kusama directs, one particular shoot-out; it’s not showy, it’s not stylized, but it feels real and believable and not played for thrills. The emotion behind every moment rises until it’s almost unbearable – I found myself in tears throughout much of the film’s third act, as all becomes clear and we see just how much Erin Bell has lost. A quiet moment between mother and daughter, as we examine the blasted terrain of their relationship, is anguished and heart-rending, and both Kidman and Jade Pettyjohn do tremendous work in it.
Kidman is surrounded by top-notch performances throughout. Sebastian Stan and Kidman have a wonderful chemistry together, and the more we learn of Chris, the more we understand just how big the stakes become. Toby Kebbell’s Silas is reptilian and loathsome, but we also see the insecurity and weakness beneath his tough exterior. Bradley Whitford as a money launderer is appropriately sleazy, but even his character has deeper facets to be explored. Karyn Kusama is uninterested in examining the surface of these characters. These are people who carry their guilt around with them wherever they go, and how each character does that defines them.
Great cop movies are hard to find in cinema these days – you can chalk it up to the politics of the day, the abundance of great television shows that have the time to explore these stories, and the tastes of the audience who seem to want their heroes flawed in quirky ways but not in true, honest ones. Destroyer is one of the best of the genre, and Nicole Kidman blesses us with a character that is powerful, honest, gritty, and accomplished. It’s going to be discussed and examined extensively. If I see a better performance from an actor this year, I will be surprised. Karyn Kusama has directed one of the most powerful films of the year, and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come. Destroyer is beautiful, heartbreaking, cinematic perfection. They really do not get much better than this.