Movies 15 October 2018 | 11:51

LFF review: Nicole Kidman’s delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in ‘Destroyer’

15 October 2018 11:51

This time last year, Nicole Kidman looked to be at the peak of a mid-career Renaissance. Sofia Coppola cast her as the matriarch of a bevy of blonde-haired Southern belles in The Beguiled, she was at the helm of Yorgos Lanthimos’s second English language feature The Killing of a Sacred Deer, while also starring in two of the year’s most successful TV dramas: Big Little Lies and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. How to follow such success? Well, Kidman’s done the only thing possible: as the lead in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer — an unapologetically female-focused gritty crime drama — she’s taken on a role that completely defies tradition.

Kidman plays Erin Bell, a LAPD detective who brings new meaning to the terms washed up and world-weary. She all but drags herself to the site of a homicide in the opening scene, shuffling up to the dead body, one arm flung protectively in front of her eyes, shielding her hangover from the bright L.A. sunlight. The police officers already in attendance are barely able to conceal their irritation that this excuse for a detective is the one who’s answered their call.

This is Kidman as we’ve never seen her before. It’s not just that she’s swapped her trademark gold locks for a badly cut, grey-streaked dark mop; or that her usually luminescent skin is freckled and sun-damaged, her lips dry and thin, with huge dark bags around her eyes; nor is it because she’s dressed in ill-fitting bootcut jeans and a grotty black leather jacket that’s seen better days. This is more than excellent wardrobe, hair and make-up design, it’s a transformation of the like undergone by Charlize Theron in Monster. The kind that wins Oscars. Everything about Kidman is different; the way she walks, the way she talks, the way she holds herself like a tired and hunted wild animal, but most of all, the way she holds the audience’s gaze.

Erin wasn’t always like this. Seventeen years ago, she — a much more recognizable Kidman, all smooth skin and silky hair — and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) were sent uncover to infiltrate a dangerous gang run by a vicious frontman named Silas (Toby Kebbell). That something went horribly wrong is clear from the start — but it takes till nearly the end of the film to see just how badly Erin screwed things up — Kidman’s ravaged face and body indicative of the guilt she’s carried with her ever since. Thus, when evidence suggests that Silas is back on the scene, Kidman single-mindedly sets out to settle old scores.

The narrative itself is not much to write home about. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay plays some neat tricks with time, but by and large the plot is fairly predictable. What is trailblazing about Destroyer is the powerhouse collaboration between Kusama and Kidman. It’s not that Kidman’s playing a character we haven’t seen before — the morally bankrupt lone wolf cop operating outside of the law — it’s that we’ve never seen a woman playing this role, especially with such abandon. Only a few scenes in and she’s jerking off a dying ex-con in return for information about Silas’s whereabouts, after which she goes around beating what she wants out of others. We’re used to seeing troubled female cops dragging their own emotional baggage into their cases, but they’re usually victims of trauma themselves. Erin, by contrast, has been the master of her own destiny throughout; there’s nobody to blame for her current situation but herself. She’s damaged and dangerous in a way that usually only men are allowed to be, and watching this on screen is nothing short of thrilling.