Nicole Kidman delivers a powerful performance as the unsympathetic protagonist, Erin Bell, in her latest movie, “Destroyer.”
The image of the gaunt face of an old Kidman hits the audience right from the get-go. Grimy and disheveled, she appears at the crime scene to view a corpse after having slept in her car. The other cops regard her with a mixture of pity and disgust. From this moment, she embodies a protagonist that audiences can’t quite seem to like.
Instead of the standard undercover cop fare, director Karyn Kusama focuses on the psychological after-effects of such endeavors in “Destroyer.” Erin, a former undercover cop, is not able to move on, even after 17 years, from her past work. Her life has sunk into squalor, and she is unable to relate even to her current cop partner. She refers to her mental state as the “burnt-out circuit in my brain,” when talking to her daughter, and one cannot help but wonder if this is reflective of PTSD-like issues faced by real-life undercover cops.
Kidman’s transformation from a young, fresh undercover cop to a bitter and frustrated older cop is revealed through a series of flashbacks, which are woven into the current storyline. Kidman and her partner (Sebastian Stan) were undercover in a gang planning a bank heist. The glimpses into her past are used with good effect to capture the harshness of gang life, especially the viciousness of the gang’s leader Silas (Toby Kebbell). The other character of note is gang member Petra (Tatiana Maslany) who taps into the despair felt by a clingy, aging girlfriend of a gang leader.
At the beginning of the film, Kidman’s character is sent a reminder of the past that she is still struggling to overcome. The past becomes unfinished business, which she sets about to rectify. The bundle of revenge that is now Kidman works her way through all the gang members with a ruthless raw clarity to reach Silas. Her determination to carry on despite setbacks is beautifully captured by the shot of a long line of resilient ants marching on the ground next to the wounded Kidman.
But a movie about cops with guns and a bank heist would not be complete with only an insect metaphor — it needs an actual heist, and the movie manages to include not just one but two action sequences of a bank robbery and a shootout.
Yet contrary to the usual characters present in high-action films, Kidman appears to be consumed by inexplicable guilt throughout the movie. The audience is, however, left waiting until the end of the film to find out why. The final revelation lends understanding to Erin’s strained relationship with her wild and wayward teen daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). Even though Shelby and her mother struggle to connect emotionally, what Erin’s daughter notices most about her mother is her strength.
The ending revelation further adds to the unsympathetic nature of Kidman’s character. While undercover, she had stepped into the nebulous grey area of nibbling greed and a shaky moral compass and she has to live with the torturous consequences.
Perhaps the best way to notice this is through Kidman’s appearance. The camera angles are striking as they zoom into Kidman’s makeup in her role as the older cop. This is not the glamorous Kidman that we are used to seeing in other movies; the transformation is intensely dramatic and somewhat shocking. In fact, it takes a few minutes initially to register that this person is indeed Nicole Kidman. The camera further dramatizes her by zooming in on her deeply freckled and haggard face throughout the movie.
On a large scale, Kusama has given a nice circular feel to the movie on many levels. “Destroyer” starts with the corpse and circles back to the same corpse. But while the audience may think one thing of the body at the beginning of the film, they surely will not think the same thing at the end. And, as the movie ends, a skateboard adds to the circular imagery by flipping a full 360 degrees.