Destroyer (2018)

Nicole Kidman plays startlingly against type in Karyn Kusama’s LA noir Destroyer.

Vengeance is Mine

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Nicole Kidman glams down in Destroyer as burnt-out undercover policewoman Erin Bell in an LA noir. She’s a grungy wreck: matted hair, ruined skin, her voice a growl, her only outfit jeans and a leather jacket it looks as though she’s slept in, and who has a ruined relationship with her daughter. When we first see her, she’s waking up the morning after the night before after sleeping in her car, under a looming viaduct and surrounded by oblivious skateboarders.

Karyn Kusama’s film makes this a puzzle, skipping backwards and forwards in time to gradually piece together snippets of plot. In flashbacks, we see Kidman as a fresh-faced young cop with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) as, at great personal risk, they infiltrate a cult-like drugs and robbery gang, dominated by messianic Silas (Toby Kebbell). That mission ended tragically and Erin has never recovered from the trauma. What triggers the film’s anguish for her now is the LAPD’S discovery of a body with a gang tattoo that Erin knows belongs to Silas’s gang. Fifteen years after that botched robbery, it seems that Silas is back in action again and this time she’s determined he won’t escape.

Destroyer is a film that was highly anticipated and promised so much – a new action-woman image for Kidman, albeit damaged and traumatised, as she disappeared into the identity of an alcoholic obsessive with nothing to lose. It’s a film with a woman director with forthright attitudes to the representation of women on screen. It’s certainly well done but also sadly disappointing. Kidman is an excellent actress and she gives the role of Erin Bell her all, but though her performance is gripping she never quite convinces in the action sequences: her slouching and gruffness have the veneer of grittiness but somehow always seem like acting.

The convoluted time switches that unroll the story eventually become frustrating rather than intriguing. But if the idea grabs you and you can overcome this, it’s good entertainment. And though the film is by a women, about a woman, and maybe also for women, and there’s the novelty of a woman behaving as seedily as you’re used to seeing a male detective behave in those circumstances: ultimately, what does it achieve for women in film?

Destroyer screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 25 January 2018 in the UK.

Join the discussion