Destroyer film review: Everybody is fascinated when beauty plays the beast

Destroyer. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Starring Nicole Kidman. Rating: 5 (out of 10)

We love the uglification of movie stars, don’t we? Strip away the makeup and add some weight and suddenly a good performance is elevated to “transformative” and fast-tracked for an Oscar.

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Charlize Theron was so honoured for Monster. Kidman received Best Actress the year previous when she donned a prosthetic nose in The Hours. And Patricia Arquette just won a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice award for her homely turn in Escape At Dannemora. (Male actors get similar treatment – Christian Bale is one such chameleon – but we’re especially fascinated when beauties play beasts.)

Her hair the colour of dirty dish water, her skin cakey, eyes unnaturally, distractingly hollow, Kidman’s portrayal of a burned-out cop certainly fits the bill. But there’s got to be a good story to bolster the performance, and a great performance behind all that pancake makeup and chapped lips. Lamentably, Destroyer has neither. 

We first meet Kidman’s Erin Bell as she wakes up in her car, squinting against the L.A. sun. Erin rises most mornings blind drunk or hungover in her car: in fact, we never really see the inside of her home. This day she staggers over to a crime scene – Walking Dead-style – and notifies the unimpressed officers on duty that she probably knows the guy.

“This thing has been ice cold for a long time,” a cohort reminds Erin. In fact, the case is 17 years old: it’s the case that sent Erin on a slow, downward spiral of booze and self-disregard that should have seen her fired long before now. Not even the arrival of a daughter, now 16 and rebelling against years of neglect, could slow Erin’s determined descent. Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) is living with her 23-year-old scuzzball boyfriend; she is a living, breathing testament to everything Erin has done wrong.

In flashbacks we meet Erin the fresh-faced rookie, assigned to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers with fellow undercover officer Chris (Sebastian Stan, very good). Their roles as lovers soon become reality, and Erin hatches an exit strategy that coincides with the group’s next big heist. The leader of the group is charismatic Silas (Toby Kebbell), who lords over his crew with an inexplicable, cultish authority. The other women in Silas’ orbit (including Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany) are at his disposal but Erin’s fealty is unclear; it’s one small detail omitted that erodes the narrative’s credibility

Destroyer is a serviceable thriller, if a little addled, time-wise. In the present we meet despicable lawyer DiFranco (Bradley Whitford, an oily breath of fresh air, if such a thing can be imagined) and a dying ex-con. Erin uses different methods to extract information from both men, and both methods underscore just how far she has fallen.

Kidman takes on some interesting roles (Dogville, Birth, The Rabbit Hole, The Killing of A Sacred Deer, Boy Erased), and Destroyer is no exception. But though Erin is the centre of Destroyer, she’s hardly its beating heart. Kidman’s voice is a raspy whisper, and her makeup is so exaggerated in comparison to everyone else’s that Erin is like a grim, shuffling island unto herself. 

DOP Julie Kirkwood utilizes frequent shots from above to highlight the emotional disconnect; the fact that Erin seems to have only passing familiarity with her partner, and no connection at all to home or to things, only deepens the sense of a woman leaving everything behind.

A scene of Russian roulette and another between Kidman and Maslany hint that there could have been more to this tale if handled differently.

But there’s no moral to this sordid story, just a lot of character posturing and genre clichés that feel implausible when piled on top of one another.

No amount of makeup in the world can mask that.


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