One of the more unsympathetic reviews of The Godfather said that Lee J. Cobb could have played Don Corleone just as well as Marlon Brando but without having to go through all the cotton-in-the-cheeks make-up wizardry. The point the critic (deliberately?) missed is that Francis Ford Coppola needed Brando in the lead to make the film seem like an event … even after his career slump, Marlon commanded attention. In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman goes through a remarkable physical transformation – make-up artists will note a new gold standard for liver spots – to add years and mileage, though she appears more like her usual self in a flashback thread (it’s an irony that the actress is presumably closer in age to her made-up persona than in the girlish flashbacks). Kidman is remarkable here, but Melissa Leo could have been just as good with half the fuss … though, as with Coppola and Brando, I’d suspect director Karyn Kusama is hoping for a higher profile than, say, Frozen River.
Scripted by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredini, who up their game when working for Kusama (The Invitation) rather than turning out the Ride Along series, it’s a combination burnout cop character study and obsessive vengeance quest – with a tricky bit of structuring that gives the protagonist’s seeming cycle of self-harm an actual snake-swallowing-its-tail aspect that’s at once clever and a bit of a cheat. LA Detective Erin Bell (Kidman) is a shambling drunken wreck first seen tottering out of the car she’s slept in to scope out someone else’s crime scene, which brings back bad memories – involving a deep backstory in which she and no-longer-around partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) went undercover with a cult/gang/heist crew bossed by long-haired charismatic Silas (Toby Kebbell), and it turned out badly for everyone … now, as signalled by some dye-pack-stained stolen bills from the job which went wrong, it seems Silas is back and Erin lurches around looking up old connections as she tries to track him down. It’s almost comically sleazy, with Erin giving a dying crook (James Jordan) a hand-job to get information or seeing off a bodyguard by puking on his shoes, but takes time off from the hardboiled noir to pick at the scabs of her relationships – with a fed-up ex (Scoot McNairy) and alienated teen daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) – and vaguely get her ducks in a row (the girl is running around with an obvious bad influence boyfriend) before a last stand she doesn’t expect to walk away from.
Kusama gives it all a drab, concretey, nowhere look, but does rev up things for unexpected shifts into violence – tailing an old gang-member (Tatiana Maslany), Erin finds herself on the scene of a new bank robbery and charges in, at the risk of repeating the tragedy of the botch that left folks dead last time. This isn’t the first female ‘Bad Lieutenant’-type cop movie – Jennifer Jason Leigh in Rush and Theresa Russell in Impulse have gone down that route – and it doesn’t quite have the ring of authenticity found in James Ellroy’s or Abel Ferrara’s takes on the sub-genre. We’re entirely in Erin’s head throughout the film, so her obsessions are paramount – giving Kebbell a difficult task in establishing Silas as a magnetic master crook, somewhere between Charles Manson and Keyser Soze, though Erin might be bigging up a fairly standard loser crim into an arch-nemesis in order to give her downfall and degradation (which, it turns out late in the day, began long before her undercover spell) a more heroic arc. Kusama also overloads the last reel with symbolic mangy dogs and a walk into snowy woods, though there’s one terrific pullback reveal salted away in there too.