For all its impressiveness, Destroyer is also kind of a stunt. Sure, Nicole Kidman is mostly unrecognizable as beat-up Detective Erin Bell, and it’s thus one of the most amazing transformations of her career. But how badly did we need this transformation? How many times do we need to marvel at beautiful Hollywood actresses “playing ugly”? Perhaps not since Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) has a “gritty” transformation been this dramatic. (Try Googling “beautiful actresses playing ugly” — you’ll find mostly supposedly “brave” portrayals that called for no makeup, or the appearance of no makeup.) But the question remains: why not just hire a perfectly good actor who already looks kind of like the character you’re looking for? Surely that would make the movie cheaper to make. On the other hand, would anyone then be interested in the film? I suppose that is really the pertinent question.
And no one can fault clearly talented actors for being interested in challenging themselves. Nicole Kidman has long been an actor of a caliber few others have matched. Still, casting her so far against type, as a grizzled detective, does have an unintended effect: People come to the movie to marvel at the trick of her transformation, rather than at the quality of the movie itself.
Destroyer is also directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama (her first feature film credit since 2009’s Jennifer’s Body), working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. The three previously worked together on the very poorly reviewed live action film of Aeon Flux in 2005, so I guess this is a massive step up from that, thirteen years later. I’ll say this about Destroyer’s script: a twist comes at the end that I did not at all see coming.
In the opening scene, Detective Bell approaches the body of a recently murdered man. She tells the other cops already on the scene, who are clearly already conditioned to be frustrated with her, that she knows who did it. The rest of the story unfolds in a way that puts us under the impression that this murder case is integral to Bell’s part in it. For Bell’s part, though — she’s uber-focused on the realization that one Silas (Toby Kebbell), the ringleader of a group of criminals she once got entangled with under cover, has resurfaced. She’s out for vengeance.
It is a little jarring to see the likes of Nicole Kidman occasionally kicking the shit out of people — perhaps most significantly here, a lawyer played by Bradley Whitford. Slightly more often, she’s also getting the shit beat out of her. This has already been pointed out by others, so I cannot take credit for the observation, and I do wonder if it would even have registered had I not heard about it prior to watching the movie: There is a certain satisfaction in one key element in which Destroyer is unusually realistic. Unlike most movies, characters here are completely winded after a foot chase that lasts just a couple of minutes. And after Detective Bell receives a good number of kicks to the abdomen, she spends pretty much the rest of the movie limping and wincing from its lasting pain. These characters suffer injuries that are actually grounded in reality.
The psychological tolls of bad mistakes are well handled too. We get occasional flashbacks to the bank robbery gone wrong — this is seventeen years ago, so here Kidman gets presented as younger than her actual 51 years. It was around this time that she got pregnant, hence the 16-year-old troubled daughter she now has (Jade Pettyjohn, well cast). The present-day Bell looks aged far more than 17 years; she could be sixty. But, to say life has not been great to her in that time would be an understatement, so it makes sense.
Taking the novelty of Kidman’s transformation — which is impressive, as is her performance — out of the equation, it’s difficult to assess the overall quality of Destroyer as a film. I’m not sorry I saw it; it had me engaged from start to finish. Do you need to see it, though? Maybe that depends on your definition of “need.” The plot structure seems novel in its own right, until upon further reflection it becomes clear that it’s a device pretty well worn these days.
I can’t think of any particular reason to tear down Destroyer; gimmick or not, it is a unique experience. That’s not nothing. What sets it apart amounts to pretty superficial elements, and there is maybe not as much depth as at first it may seem. But how many people besides someone with a film critic’s eye are going to consider such things? Plenty of people will marvel at this movie, and be happy to have done so. Anyone who asks me, though, will be told that part is just a trick, and Destroyer is a decent but ultimately unremarkable film.