Early look review: Nicole Kidman shines in Destroyer, despite the distracting makeup

There are good and bad things about Nicole Kidman’s latest film. A glare-filled performance from the veteran actor is one of the good, writes Blake Howard. 

Destroyer is a vexing film. It’s an occasionally thrilling take on the ageing cop seeking justice with no consideration for the law. It pairs one of the great working female actors – Nicole Kidman – with one of the great working female directors – Karyn Kusama – for their take on a ‘bad lieutenant.’ Despite the “Kidman-aissance,” this tale taking place across time and in and out of the character’s prime doesn’t sell the characters across both timelines and suffers from hair helmet distractions. Please for the love of god can Matthew McConaughey lend her the wig from True Detective so we don’t have to endure another feature-length hair disaster.

When seasoned L.A Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) happens upon a murder victim she discovers a message. Evidence from a bank heist that she worked on during an undercover assignment 20 years earlier has been placed as a calling card. Erin begins a vigilante reunion tour to extinguish the ghosts of her past once and for all.

Kusama is obsessed with Kidman’s face. The close-up photography for the ageing make-up is as cold as someone surveying the surface of Mars, every carefully etched line a valley leading to the glacial gyres of Kidman’s intense gaze. In tectonically slow close-ups, Erin’s mileage is mesmerising. When Kidman is staged in such a way to act through her mask, the harsh light of morning conveying her agony, it’s an exercise in stillness for performer and viewer.

In contrast, when Kidman’s in motion, all the makeup in the world doesn’t mask her jarring attempts to emulate a broken body, sinewy with scar tissue. Kidman’s vitality shines through the stilted movement. That very vitality is seamless in flashback; in the present, faced with violence, she feels porcelain. There’s a moment when she gets kicked in the stomach that you’re sure will result in a Demolition Man-style shatter. Erin and Liam Neeson climbing that fence in Taken 3 are in the running for frailest ageing action hero.

Sebastian Stan plays the smouldering Chris, Erin’s former partner, who is required to keep those flashbacks steamy before we learn the ‘ins and outs’ of his untimely death. Toby Kebbell’s Silas is absolutely the cheap Halloween version of the alluring cult leader. This is another resume entry that reinforces my theory that less CGI ferocious ape masking on Kebbell, the less his characters tap into his raw energy. Scene-stealing Bradley Whitford is the MVP of the supporting cast. His hilarious lawyer character DiFranco, screaming baseball batting tips to his son out the window during her ‘interrogation,’ is both comic relief and inadvertently un-suspends your disbelief that Kidman is convincingly badass.

Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Kusama’s collaborators on the disturbing and agonisingly tense The Invitation, fashion a lean noir mystery, playing deft sleight of hand as we observe Erin’s fumbling search. The film tilts between sun-drenched memories of a past filled with purpose, to the cold reality of a sloppy Erin who is now a burden to both her colleagues and her family.

Days after viewing, when you’re transported to relive the tale conveyed in near still life glares for Kidman, Destroyer becomes a movie that overcomes the leading character’s stupidity, distracting make-up, romance novel cover flashbacks. Just.