It’s established tradition at this point for A-list Hollywood actresses to spend 20 years getting polished into a glamorous sheen only to laboriously disguise their luster with grit and grime and caked-on creases from time to time in order to perform the poverty pantomime awards voters love.
Destroyer, from director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) is an interesting case, because while it stars Nicole Kidman in some truly off-putting normie makeup, it’s as much Heat as it is Cake (Jennifer Aniston’s attempt at an awards vehicle). Normally when actresses of Kidman’s stature go all Eileen Wuornos on us, it isn’t for a cops-and-robbers shoot ‘em up. All of which makes Destroyer… interesting… if not entirely… good.
Kidman plays Erin Bell, an LAPD detective haunted (haunted!) by a botched undercover operation that got her partner killed 15 years ago, but determined to catch her old nemesis, who seems to have emerged from hiding for one more score. The film cuts between flashbacks of the young, fresh, freckle-faced version of Kidman’s character, going undercover and falling in love with her partner (Sebastian Stan), and the present-day version, ravaged by 15 years of guilt and self-destructive alcoholism, tottering around like a frail zombie and growling phlegmily at coworkers and estranged family.
Kidman is game enough, and surprisingly believable, but let’s be honest, they may have overdone the sallow skin and yellowing teeth and fake liver spots. I know you have to work pretty hard to make Nicole Kidman look bad, but… maybe work less hard? This is starting to feel vaguely insulting towards we the non-glamorous among us — the normies, the regular job-havers, the working class. It’s also tough on a viewer. You try to listen to the lines Kidman’s delivering but it’s hard not to fixate on her character’s mouth, which looks like it’s going to leak black stuff like the Penguin’s funeral in Batman Returns.
The thing about the “hard-drinking detective” trope, we enjoy it because it’s fun to watch someone who has stopped giving a shit, not because we enjoy watching someone physically fall apart. Most of us have watched that second one enough in real life. Not that Kidman doesn’t also do a decent job of not giving a shit, especially in a scene opposite Bradley Whitford as a scummy lawyer, a notable moment of joy in a movie crying out for them. People actually clapped!
Perhaps Kusama was trying to bring a greater authenticity to the self-destructive detective trope, and fine, that’s a reasonable goal, but the movie around it isn’t quite grounded enough to pull it off. And when Kidman’s character finally does get that shot at redemption, she botches it in a way that the movie doesn’t really acknowledge. It depicts moronic, cowboy police tactics in a way that I read more as a blind spot than a critique.
As in The Invitation, Destroyer pulls a clever third act twist that very nearly redeems all its faults, but in this case feels like too little too late. It turns out, watching a trauma-scarred character slowly fall apart is kind of an enervating experience.