Destroyer is all about Kidman as tortured, haggard detective Erin Bell. A single look into those bleary, bloodshot eyes alerts us to the fact that this character has been through the wringer. Destroyer is a forensic study of how Bell got this way. The trick, I suppose, is making us care.
We meet Bell in the present, but the narrative zigzags gingerly. A dangerous undercover assignment, back when Bell was young, goes profoundly wrong. Gang connections are forged and perilously broken, lives are lost and vendettas accrued. As we learn the details of the story and discover the many nefarious characters in its orbit, we begin to see Bell if not sympathetically then at least with a frame of reference in place.
Director Karyn Kusama disregards any convention of what female protagonists should look like and it’s clear neither Kusama nor Kidman expect audiences to like Bell. Which is strangely refreshing. Bell is mean, broken, and prone to violence though not beyond redemption — she’s deeply committed to her estranged daughter. But with the possible exception of Kill Bill: Volume 1, she more closely resembles cinematic male counterparts seeking bloody revenge at any cost.
If you read the plot of Destroyer on the page, it’s twisty and gripping, yet on screen it doesn’t quite take hold; there isn’t enough oxygen for both the story and for Kidman’s Bell. Her inner pain and brutalized exterior are the movie’s central characters and Kidman’s every expression gives them voice.
A less focused approach might have permitted the secondary (and necessarily one-dimensional) characters to bloom although both Sebastian Stan as Bell's lover and Tatiana Maslany as her sort-of nemesis work hard for their spotlights. Ditto the grittiest parts of Los Angeles. But Destroyer is all Kidman, all the time, offering capital “A” acting.
Destroyer. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Starring Nicole Kidman and some other people. Opens January 11 in Toronto and other cities January 25.