It takes a lot of inner confidence to pull off what Karyn Kusama and Nicole Kidman have done with “Destroyer.” Here is the noir antihero that our current cinema has been longing for. The genre is traditionally an exclusive realm for steely male icons like Clint Eastwood or even Jamie Foxx in “Django Unchained” — but here’s a shatterproof hardcore woman hellbent on making things right once and for all.
When the film begins, Kidman’s Erin Bell is a wrecked woman, someone so repulsive to look at you have to turn away the moment she starts walking toward you. Part of that is the distinctive look the actress has adopted for the role: makeup and wig that makes her look like she’s slept in the desert in a sleeping bag, chewed on charcoal, and not taken a shower for two weeks. Or maybe she’s someone unable to kick a hardcore heroin addiction.
None of these things are ever explained. She looks like that just because she looks like that. But a more impressive part of this transformation is the internal work done by Kidman herself, clearly one of the finest actors of her generation, or anyone else’s. Kidman has fully absorbed Erin inside her, as there doesn’t seem to be a point where the character ends and the actress begins.
Kusama has deliberately left much of the plot for the viewer to work out. It’s twisty and complicated, so that each layer peeled back gives us a little more information. This is true up to the film’s final scenes, where Erin’s backstory is finally revealed. We find out things little by little as we watch the wiry, dirty-faced hellion hunt down the bad guys (and one bad girl) one by one.
She has nothing to lose, which makes her all the more dangerous. Her slight frame makes her someone everyone underestimates, which also gives her a clear advantage when the blood begins to flow in earnest.
Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, “Destroyer” is clearly a showcase for Kidman, who is in nearly every frame of the film — both as her young pretty self in flashbacks and as the hollowed-out antihero she becomes.
Kidman’s character is also a mother, and like so many male archetypes in the same situation, she has not been there for her child. This variation challenges the viewer to examine notions of the inherent roles men and women play when it comes to parenting on screen. Is it more acceptable for a dad to neglect a kid their entire lives? What if a woman does it? Is it more unforgivable? Do we expect women to be there on a level that men never can be? Probably.
The makeup and hair that make Kidman nearly unrecognizable will be another challenge to viewers who must view her ravaged face for the film’s entirety. It breaks one of the rules of popular cinema: Don’t mess with the one thing people love about a movie star (although she altered her perfect features in “The Hours” and won an Oscar for it.)
Here, she wears a strange gray shag wig, her eyes are smudged with dark charcoal and her teeth have been blackened. Kusama often films her in tight closeup so we’re forced to confront the change to that beautiful face we know so well. But even without the makeup, this would still be one of the best performances of the year.
Kidman may also bring more awareness to Kusama’s work. With “Girlfight,” the underrated “Jennifer’s Body” and “The Invitation,” Kusama is a long-simmering cinematic force who might at last attain prominence. Kusama, like Kidman, is not afraid to taxi to the dark side of human nature, and equally unafraid of hardcore violence. “Destroyer” is not for the faint of heart.
Is this the best performance of Kidman’s career? It very well might be. That alone is a reason to see “Destroyer.” But there are other reasons, including the film’s crackling action sequences and suspense.
But no doubt about it, Kidman is the real draw here, as her talents are unleashed with unexpected fury to tell an unusual story about an unusual person. A woman whose life choices have haunted to her to the point where she seems to have no life left worth preserving. A woman reduced to grit and sinew and resolved to see justice done at any cost.
Kidman said at the Q&A after the first Telluride screening that she’s just happy to still be working at the age of 51. A restless actor who started out her career a corkscrew-haired redhead from Australia, she is now a formidable master of the craft at the top of her game.