The first thing you’ll notice about Destroyer is Nicole Kidman’s face. That’s probably the second and third thing you’ll notice about Destroyer, too. Karyn Kusama’s moody vengeance policier opens in full-on, extreme close-up of its famous lead actress’s mug — but we might barely recognize her. Her eyes heavy and weathered, her skin pockmarked and hardened, this is not the Nicole Kidman we know. As Erin Bell, a cop whose many years of hard living appear to have gotten the best of her, Kidman droops, stumbles, and rasps her way through this bizarre, unsettling film. It’s an odd transformation. The makeup isn’t exactly realistic, which can be distracting. But I’m not sure that’s not intentional, because the performance itself is stylized, too, steering clear of anything resembling naturalism. My theory: Kusama and Kidman don’t want to immerse us; they want to confront us.
We first see Erin as she wakes up inside her car, disoriented, and staggers to the scene of a recent murder. The officers in charge don’t want her around; it’s not her jurisdiction, and she looks terrible. Nobody knows who the victim is, or why he was murdered. Erin tells the other cops, offhandedly, that she might know who did it. They don’t care; they just want her out of there. Her reputation for boozing, it seems, precedes her. But something else seems to hang over this woman, like a curse.
The homicide we see in those opening minutes, we soon realize, connects in some way to events that occurred 16 or so years ago, when Erin was an eager young sheriff’s deputy working undercover alongside a calm, professional FBI agent named Chris (Sebastian Stan) to help take down a violent gang of bank robbers. Though they barely know each other, we see Chris and Erin practicing their cover story for how they met; they will pose not just as seasoned crooks looking for action, but as strung-out lovers.
It seems the psychotic, sadistic leader of that gang, Silas (Toby Kebbell), might be back in town after all these years. Erin wanders through the present day, a vision of both self-loathing and an almost supernatural kind of persistence, trying to locate Silas by revisiting the remnants of their old crew. Along the way, she also tries to piece together her memories of what happened during their earlier encounter. These little story shards themselves are out of order, and at times contradictory. Erin and Chris were, after all, living a lie, pretending to be something they’re not. And it seems that some element of the lie stuck — that the false vision of life they projected became reality in some measure, in ways both good and bad.
Destroyer is a fragmented film, which will exasperate some. And there’s something fundamentally unrealistic, dreamlike about Erin’s encounters in the present day. Everybody has changed, and yet they all still seem haunted by what happened way back when. You’d think criminals would flee, change their identities, vanish off the face of the Earth — but it takes little effort for her to find them, as if they’re all inhabitants of the same psychological and spiritual limbo. Some of them are still taking down scores. (At one point, Erin finds herself in the middle of a robbery, and Kusama shoots it with an eye not on suspense or clarity but on the limitations and distance of the protagonist’s perspective — Erin can barely see what’s happening, and as a result so do we. It feels like a metaphor for the movie itself.)
Erin’s visitations to her old crew have a Stations of the Cross quality to them. Each seems to debase her further. The surrealism of these scenes, compounded by the choppily intricate nature of its flashback structure, makes Destroyer deliberately frustrating, but the anxious, unmoored tone pulls us along; we feel like we’re constantly on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes. And Kidman’s performance as this broken, obsessed woman is powerful. Breathless, rasping through her teeth, she conveys both vulnerability and intractability. She seems like she could drop dead at any second, and yet, we also sense that we’re watching someone who has already had to endure the worst life has to give her. At times, Erin actually resembles a corpse, with Kusama emphasizing her stillness, and the unsettling vacancy of her stare — unforgiving and indifferent.
And that’s where Destroyer got me. There is something almost Kabuki to Kidman’s face here. When she speaks, she seems to speak from beneath a mask. There might even be something symbolic to it, because this is ultimately more than just a woman who’s lived a hard life. She is death itself, the destroyer of worlds.