By Naomi Roper
Picture the scene. The LA sun beats down mercilessly on the woeful sight of a corpse lying twisted on the concrete, Blood stains the ground a dull, murky red. Cops stand around, coffee in hand, surveying the scene. A beat up car pulls up and an even more beat up figure emerges from it. The detective looks terrible, something the other cops aren’t shy to comment on. “Rough night detective?” The detective ignores the embarrassed and smirking glances and walks towards the scene, a keen interest alight in their eyes. The other cops try and shoo them away “Hey we got this detective. You have no jurisdiction here” Undeterred the detective continues looking at the body, clearly seeing something that the others have missed. Eventually the detective gets chased away, insults are traded and the detective makes a sharp exit while the watching audience knows that they know more than they have let on.
Seen it all before? Of course you have. A million times over. But what we’ve never seen until now is a woman playing the role of the detective. Which when you stop and think about it is completely ridiculous. Why shouldn’t women get to do the stereotypical “bad, hard drinking detective who gets shit done” roles?
Nicole Kidman plays Detective Erin Bell, a detective whose murky past comes back to haunt her when a stained banknote sent to her in the post reveals that Silas (Toby Kebbell) is back. Silas was the head of a gang infiltrated by Erin and Chris (Sebastian Stan) in an undercover mission years before – one that had tragic consequences. Erin is a wreck, she drinks like a fish and is estranged from her husband. Her teenage daughter is dating the world’s biggest douchebag just to spite her. But with the return of Silas, Erin becomes a woman on a mission, galvanised by sheer hatred she is determined to bring him down at any cost.
In many ways there is nothing really new about Destroyer. It’s an entertaining, detective noir efficiently directed by Karyn Kusama with a pulsing score. The characters are pure archetypes, the “breaks all the rules” detective, the angry teen daughter, the bland villain, the melancholy ex, the list goes on. But none of that really matters because Nicole Kidman’s utterly astonishing performance elevates the source material. Kidman has always been good (it’s Halloween time go watch her be incredible in The Others) even if people only seem to have been reminded of just how good she is with last year’s Big Little Lies but Detective Bell really is the performance of her career. Much has been made of her physical transformation and the superficial commentary on it is frankly beginning to grate (Ooh putting on a grey wig and going without make up is so brave of a woman her age. Yeah you can get in the bin with that.) Particularly when in the flashback scenes she effortlessly convinces as an early 20’s naif without having to resort to any Marvel style CGI de-ageing. Nope a better wig and some dewy make up for Nicole does the trick. But naff commentary aside her transformation is impressive. Yes she sports a grey wig and clever make up to age her eyes and mouth. And yes the lack of apparent make up renders her almost colourless especially in the many scenes in which she is driving, the lights of LA washing over her face and draining every bit of colour and life from her. Erin is a wraith drifting through her own story.
But the transformation goes deeper than that. Kidman changes the way she holds herself, Erin is always slightly hunched in as if she is trying to protect herself from a blow. She moves with a certain stagger which belies a lifetime of drinking and her voice seems deeper. It’s highly impressive work. Kidman utterly convinces both as a hard nosed detective determined to bring down Silas and as the slightly starry-eyed younger Erin falling in love with Stan’s Chris. Erin is a woman wracked by guilt and consumed by unending rage. A scene in which her daughter tries and fails to understand why her mother acts as she does is one of the best pieces of cinema I’ve seen all year. Kidman manages to be furiously angry, bitter, despairing, tender and so, so achingly vulnerable all at the same time. She never loses the humanity in Erin, we may not like her but she makes no attempt for us to to. Kidman presents this living, breathing mess of a woman and allows us to make our own judgements. It was my performance of the London Film Festival – nothing else came remotely close. If there is justice Kidman will be at the Oscars next year.
Once we move away from Kidman the supporting characters are woefully underwritten and some actors fare rather better than others with the material. Bradley Whitford has a fun turn as a slimey lawyer but it’s Bradley Whitford. He could do that role half asleep. The only other member of the cast capable of going toe to toe with Kidman operating on full throttle is Sebastian Stan who is very impressive in a thin role. He takes the scant material and breathes life into Chris, Erin’s fellow undercover cop/lover. He and Kidman have fantastic chemistry and Stan’s subtle performance is charming and heartfelt and a welcome reminder that his talents (as anyone who saw his hilarious turn in I, Tonya will attest) extend way beyond Bucky Barnes.
Tony Kebbell and Tatiana Maslany fair less well. Both are highly accomplished actors and I’ve been blown away by Kebbell’s work in Black Mirror and the Planet of the Apes trilogy and Maslany’s work as multiple clones in Orphan Black is the stuff of legend. But here they struggle to distinguish themselves. Silas is remarkably bland and unthreatening for the big bad of the piece (especially given the near mythic build up the film gives him) and Maslany’s role does not remotely showcase her talent.
But then in a way the fact that the villain is so forgettable doesn’t matter because it’s hard to get grouchy about the other characters paling in comparison to Detective Bell when you have Nicole Kidman acting her skin off. Plus as every reader of pulp crime fiction knows the detective is always both the hero and the villain. Let’s hope Kidman’s performance is a trailblazer for more female lead detective noir.
Destroyer is released in the UK on 25 January 2019 and on Christmas Day in the US