So, it was with some apprehension that I sat down with my popcorn to see Destroyer. It didn’t take long - not much more than the opening credits - to allay my concerns. Kidman is, indeed, astonishing in this film. But the film itself can take a lot of credit for how well she comes across as the wreckage of Erin Bell, an La Cop who’s lost to booze and guilt and self- recrimination over events from her past that, very soon, we will come to understand.
Director, Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Girlfight) working from a screenplay by regular collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, delivers this complex story with a sure hand, moving easily and effectively between the present day and the events of seventeen years ago when then, State cop, Bell, is teamed up to work undercover with an FBI agent, Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrating a gang of bank robbers led by the cold-hearted sociopath, Silas (Toby Kebbell). The present-day story kicks off with the horribly hungover and unwashed Bell staggering into a murder scene where a bank-dyed hundred-dollar bill on the dead body is a clue that links back to Silas. (Kidman’s performance is so genuine and raw, you can almost smell the stink coming off the character when she enters the scene). What follows is an old-school style cop story as Bell tries to track down Silas and face the demons she left behind all those years ago. The structure of the unfolding narrative sees her go from one former gang member to the other, following the breadcrumbs of clues that she believes will eventually lead her to her nemesis.
The cast is uniformly powerful and gripping. Kebbell is frightening in his narcissistic dominance of all around him. The present day scene between Bell and Toby (James Jordan) is heart-wrenching and the past and present scenes with Silas’ girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany who, herself, gave us a tour de force of multiple roles in the excellent Canadian ScfiFi thriller Orphan Black) have as much pathos as they do tension. In each case, the actors navigate the shift in character between their younger selves in 2001 and their present day selves in 2018 in a way that feels as authentic as it does devastating for the way their lives have been poisoned and ruined (one might even say destroyed) by Silas.
The real surprise here, though, is the screenplay, written by the duo that gave us The Tuxedo (2002), Clash of the Titans (2010) and Ride Along 1 & 2 (2014-16). It’s hard to reconcile that the writers of those slight movies crafted this complex and compelling story that unfolds in a binary timeframe underpinned by a chain of great scenes, one after the other, where characters are quickly and sharply drawn whilst exposition is deftly insinuated into the narrative. It also has a great little twist that makes the structure of the clever storytelling even cleverer still.
What elevates the story, though, from formulaic procedural to intensely human drama is the excruciatingly dysfunctional relationship between Bell and her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who lives with her guardian Ethan (Scoot McNairy). The pain of witnessing her daughter on the verge of destroying her life in similar style to the destruction Bell has brought upon herself is tenderly and sensitively handled and allows Kidman to really demonstrate her acting chops beyond the effect of excellent make-up and a noticeable lack of Botox. I do wonder, though, why such a fuss is being made about Kidman’s acting ability in this role when it comes hot on the heels of her outstanding work in Big Little Lies (HBO 2017). Still, if her recent statement that she intends to give a priority to making work with female creatives gives us more what we see in DESTROYER and Big Little Lies, then the best of her career is yet to come.