Movie Review: “Destroyer” – No Regrets

Written by Jeremiah Greville February 13, 2019

Being a movie star is tough, sometimes. Emphasis on sometimes. When your name and face are instantly recognizable, and your job is to be anyone but yourself, obvious problems arise. Nicole Kidman has dealt with this for decades, most notably donning a prosthetic nose for her role in 2002’s The Hours, for which she won her first Oscar. It’s an old practice for glamorous stars to ‘ugly-up’ for roles and accolades, and here she does it again. I don’t want to call too much attention to this, because I don’t think it’s productive to focus on a performer’s looks if there are other things to discuss. But in Destroyer…well, it’s kind of the main thing, isn’t it? To do anything else would be to bury the lede.

Destroyer stars Nicole Kidman in a transformative performance as Erin Bell, an LADP detective and former undercover officer. When a clue from her past shows up unexpectedly, she embarks on a quest to find the leader of her former gang of bank robbers and in the process atone for her past sins. Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, and Tatiana Maslany also star in a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Destroyer is directed by genre-filmmaker Karyn Kusama, and will most likely lead to more dramatic projects for her in the future. Apart from Kidman, it’s Kusama whose name will be repeated with praise in the coming years. Destroyer is a good film, but it’s a game-changer for the two women behind it.

“You look terrible.”

But back to Kidman. Yes, she’s rough to look at. And yes, she’s terrific. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination earlier this year, but in turn she was snubbed by the Oscars. While the initial appeal of Destroyer rests quite a bit on seeing how Kidman looks under all that makeup, it actually serves a point beyond initial shock appeal. Kidman, at 51, plays a woman at two different times in her life, sixteen years apart, yet her age is never explicitly mentioned. That’s because it’s not important. She looks desiccated not because of age, but because of sin. Because of regret and experience. Destroyer is Dorian Gray minus the portrait, and Kidman brings that to life from the first frame to the final scene.

However, here’s where her performance gets difficult. In putting so much work into Erin Bell, Kidman sometimes comes off as artificial. In other words, you can tell that she’s acting in some scenes, and that’s a shame. It sounds strange to say out loud, but one of the most primary skills an actor can have is to make the audience forget that they’re acting. One of the great shames in Hollywood are the performances that go entirely unnoticed simply because actors seem so natural in their roles. The opposite is true here. Kidman is fantastic, and deserves all the praise heaped upon her, but at times she’s acting so hard that the strain is noticeable. You can see the strings on the marionette, and they’re distracting.

“You chose to play cops and robbers.”

It doesn’t help that the rest of the cast (save for one) and film aren’t trying as hard. That’s not to say that they’re bad (save for one), but that it seems like they’re in a different film. Kidman scowls and prowls and lurches her way from scene to scene, while the world around her simply reacts and carries on. She’s high-definition, in a low-res world. Watching Destroyer is almost like watching bad green-screen footage. It’s like The Happytime Murders, and Kidman is the puppet. Every other character (save for one) is a standard performance. Kidman is so overwhelming that she doesn’t look at home sharing the screen with any of them. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s bad. Again—trust me on this—she’s very good.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Toby Kebbell. As the mysterious gang leader Silas, he’s a cartoonish mess that sucks the life out of every scene he’s in. Kebbell is a fine actor with bad luck in choosing roles (Fant4stic, Warcraft, Wrath of the Titans, etc), and can add this to his list of misfires. But the blame here goes to the writers Hay and Manfredi. Kusama deserves her share as well, but there’s only so much she could do with such a poorly written villain. If you’ve seen Mandy or Bad Times at the El Royale, you know what they were going for with his character. They absolutely didn’t reach it.

“Do something good for once.”

Despite front-loading this review with my complaints, I still think that Destroyer is a good film. If you’ve seen the trailer and are interested, seek it out. But be warned—it’s far more art-house than action. It’s a bit like the aforementioned Mandy, but without the LSD. Kusama frames Kidman in each scene with raw close-ups and balanced medium shots, and the tension builds with a dissonant string-score that calls to mind Kusama’s horror-film roots. When Destroyer finally does kick into action gear, it’s visceral and seriously thrilling. One of the best sequences in the film begins with the ‘oh shit’ moment when a character pulls an automatic rifle from the trunk of their car. It’s unexpected and incredible.

Destroyer is not a perfect film, and Kidman’s performance is not without fault, but it’s definitely worth a watch for those curious. Destroyer is an art-house crime film and character study, not a dramatic epic of any sort, nor a gritty grind-house flick. What it does, it does well, but expectation can get in the way of a good time here. This is a small film on a small scale, and you should go in for Kidman more than anything else. At the very least, this is a reminder of why she’s been around thirty years and will probably be around for many more. And it’s a signal flare in the sky for film-fans to keep an eye on Karyn Kusama. Destroyer hasn’t destroyed anything for these two. If anything, it’s created excitement for their next films, whatever they may be.

My Rating. 7/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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