Released: 25th January 2019
Directed By: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy
Reviewed By: Jess Ennis
There’s a handy causal link which suggests that the more prosthetics an actor wears, the more likely they are to get some Oscar buzz – or even a win. Think Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Charlize Theron for Monster, Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. Usually, if the word ‘transformative’ is liberally applied to a performance, you can guarantee that there’ll be potential for a flash of gold on the near horizon.
How annoying, then, that this year’s Oscar buzz for Best Performance in a Face Full of Make-Up looks set to surround Christian Bale for Vice over Nicole Kidman for her performance in Destroyer. Destroyer is easily one of the films of the year – and Kidman one of the performances of the decade. Some people are content to let the makeup wear them, letting the appearance do the work, but Kidman’s ‘transformation’ (yes, I’m using it) serves only to reinforce the depths to which her character falls over the duration of the film – and, in the context of the story, her life.
We see Kidman’s Erin Bell move throughout the course of the film – thanks to some beautifully dextrous non-linear storytelling by director Karyn Kasuma – from a fresh-faced LAPD detective to a wizened, hardened, thoroughly damaged woman, whose genetic makeup at this point is likely more walking bruise than human. In the opening shots, Kasuma shows her dragging herself into consciousness, squinting into the sunlight and stumbling – supposedly drunkenly – to the side of an unknown corpse, where she stands in stark contrast to her colleagues. While they’re upright in crisp suits, she arrives in a beaten leather jacket, leaning gingerly at an almost 45-degree angle. But why? Destroyer shows you, through its explanation of the present and it’s clever weaving in of the past, that all things have a cause and effect – and Erin Bell’s life is one long, relentless string of them.
Those expecting a crime thriller from Kasuma should perhaps reevaluate what they want to get out of Destroyer. Though the plot as a procedural drama is efficient, it’s arguably not the film’s primary function. Destroyer is instead best enjoyed slowly, as a character piece. There are action sequences (and well-choreographed ones, at that) certainly, but they’re so much richer when you consider them in light of the characters involved; a present-day shootout in a bank between Kidman and Toby Kebbell’s deranged Silas bears an eerie reminiscence to a key moment in Bell’s past, for example. Kasuma puts work into joining what’s happening with what’s come before, entangling the trauma of both – and you fully understand the emotional prowess of the film when you when you see how intrinsically they’re linked.
Kidman deftly navigates these separate timelines, keeping enough of young Erin within old Bell (and vice versa) to keep her recognisable, whilst providing enough difference to demonstrate that Erin has, indeed, seen some shit. She’s also ably supported by the rest of the cast – Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany, the aforementioned Kebbell, Jade Pettyjohn, and Bradley Whitford – who all strike the right balance between hitting some emotional weight themselves and playing their role in the unraveling of the reasons behind Bell’s moral descent.
Kasuma’s film is a powerful contemplation on what grief and trauma can do to someone when left to fester. At its height, it expresses, simply, how it feels to love and lose. Moments of pure, unadorned sorrow (in which Kidman soars), and guttural, animalistic rage and violence, are juxtaposed by tender shots of Bell carrying her daughter on her back through the snow to protect her feet from the cold, sunlight weaving through the trees to catch on the flakes as they fall. We’re shown both sides of life, good and bad, but we’re informed that there cannot be one without the other.
In Destroyer’s world, there are no clean solutions, no simple reasons, and no judgements on character. There are just nuanced, unembellished ruminations on where they’ve been and where they might go. And they – and everything else in the film – are simply sublime.