Nicole Kidman’s face has been the centerpiece of discussion on Destroyer since production stills were first released. It makes sense as an eye-grabber, the ravaged, craggy visage in such stark contrast to the porcelain perfection with which we usually associate Kidman. Indeed, Kidman’s face is the canvas on which the film is painted, a portrait of guilt and torment where the details are slowly, methodically drawn out. But it is not merely makeup gimmickry meant for surface shocks. It is the face of a diseased interior slowly tearing away at the exterior, the resulting physical rot of a soul that’s been ravaged.
Karyn Kusama directs the film with a deliberate heaviness – we can feel the weight of each image. There is a sort of haze that hangs over every scene and every beat, a heat that feels unbearable, a fog that feels just too thick to navigate. That style is of a piece with the journey of this central character, who is simultaneously dogged and dazed, relentlessly focused on a mission and yet in a perpetual state of disarray of her own making. Kidman plays Detective Erin Bell as one whose festering guilt is her only remaining life force. It’s what propels her defining investigation, exhuming one buried skeleton after another in attempt to excavate the rot in her environment. There is no healing, only a carving out of evil. One gets the sense that, if not for the weight of shame and remorse tethering her to the earth, she might just drift away. If she succeeds in her journey, maybe she finally can.
It’s an intriguing triptych, this screenplay, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi as both a standard procedural and an existential deep-dive into the one conducting said procedural. The story unfolds on two timelines: Erin’s initial undercover assignment, in which she and partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) pose as a criminal couple to infiltrate a gang of drug-dealing, booze-swilling bank robbers; and present day, in which Erin receives a cryptic clue from that past and re-enters the underworld with an aim that is personal but not altruistic. If the do-gooder undercover cop goal was to expose, the angry, guilt-ridden goal is only to destroy. Would the world be made a better place if these rancid criminals are eliminated? Sure, but these sorts of gangs are a dime a dozen. Erin isn’t trying to be a hero, she is trying to bring justice where before she couldn’t…or wouldn’t. The two stories are separated by nearly 20 years, and the length of that span is worn on Erin’s tired, cynical face. In the interim, she has filled the gulf with alcohol and aimless remorse, for her initial descent yielded tragic results that we only slowly are permitted to understand.
Kidman’s performance is stellar because it is so lived in. She doesn’t hide behind the makeup so much as fuse her characterization to it – this performance isn’t a surface stunt; rather, it’s a dive into a psyche that’s far more damaged than a face could ever reveal. Kusama, whose directorial prowess gets stronger with each successive film, also immerses in the world she creates, one of looming anger and mounting dread. Working in tandem with cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, Kusama crafts visuals with a stark injection of symbolism that can occasionally feel heavy-handed, though it feels like a formal extension of the leaden torment of its protagonist.
The film is meticulous in its slow burn, unfolding with such measured patience that it can lull a viewer into a casual dismissal of its method. But that is by design. Whether it’s a design flaw is worthy of debate – the film becomes so preoccupied with the procedural scrawl that one is tempted to write it off as a solid detective story that gets lost in the weeds of its own plotting. But that’s because Kusama and her screenwriters hold their biggest blows for a third act of emotional torrent and propulsive reveals. It takes a while – perhaps too long – to reach the point of reckoning, but once it gets there, Destroyer is a cathartic bomb.