When Nicole Kidman enters Destroyer as Erin, an LAPD officer in evident conflict with a swarm of demons, you’ll either gasp at her gaunt, hollow-eyed, knock-kneed appearance or you’ll furrow your brow at such boldfaced decrepitude.
Frankly, it’s a bit much, with the camera and editing continually underscoring the grisly externals of Kidman’s performance. This aggressive hard sell not only misserves an actress whose efforts come off looking strenuous, but it stands at odds with the script’s sidewinding construction, which lays out the pieces of a broad-canvas murder mystery, only gradually revealing which elements are central, and why. As major cruxes of plot, tone, and theme start locking into place—which almost palpably happens during a mid-film standoff between Kidman and a never-better, never-creepier Bradley Whitford—Destroyer starts to emerge as a piece of stark, unusual ambition. This is tragedy in a sense that Sophocles might have recognized, a story simultaneously full of twists and foreordained, built around a bad character who knows she can’t be redeemed but is nonetheless taking an errant lunge at being better, and saving someone else. Cinematically, it remains a bumpy path, with muscular scenes and potent characters colliding with weaker, shakier ones.
Ultimately, though, the film’s vacillations in quality and coherence only add to its impact, as the shell of a mediocre police procedural gives way to something sturdier, deeper, and impressively severe.
Nick Davis is a professor of film, literature, and gender studies at Northwestern University and a contributing editor to Film Comment. He also writes film reviews at www.Nick-Davis.com.