Roughly five times, while watching Karyn Kusama's Destroyer, I needed to remind myself that this was Nicole Kidman I was watching on screen. That's how thoroughly and convincingly the elegant, distinguished Oscar winner plunges into the dark and devastating role of hollowed-out L.A. detective Erin Bell in this gritty police procedural. Annually, film writers fall all over their Macbooks to praise an actor or actress who disappear under layers of prosthetics to portray someone who is wounded and impaired, or an historical figure we can't identify with on the surface. It usually leads to Oscar glory (looking at you, Gary Oldman), and I expect nothing less for Kidman -- an Oscar nomination for Destroyer is a virtual lock. But her performance as Erin Bell is more than makeup. Kidman wears the pain and suffering of Bell's bad choices like an anchor around her neck, slumping her shoulders and affecting her stance so that her every move basically accounts for that extra burden. It's always there, pushing her down, like a gigantic thumb resting on an insect. She's mesmerizing, and so committed that, yes, you will need to stop repeatedly and remind yourself, "That's Nicole Kidman." It's amazing.
The movie itself isn't quite as amazing, though it's still a compelling police procedural that borrows heavily from the drama without doing too much to rewrite the playbook. The moment we meet Erin Bell, she's a mess. The opening shot is a close up on her bloodshot eyes, the wrinkles around them signifying years of stress. She wakes up in her car (a place she frequently catnaps/passes out) and stumbles to a crime scene. There's a dead body, and Bell might know who is behind it. An old case -- a cold case -- is about to surface, pulling Erin back into a war she fought with Silas (Toby Kebbell). And Destroyer doles out details in two concurrent storylines, one when Erin was a relatively new undercover cop, and one where she's the burned out shell of the modern era, trying to close a case that has haunted her for years.
The more interesting story is set in Erin's past, where she and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), commit to alternate personalities to infiltrate Silas' band of merry bank robbers. In these flashbacks, Kidman is fresh faced and optimistic, realizing what it might take to complete the job, but totally unaware of the impact those sacrifices will have on her life, on her family, and on her career. The scenes set in the current timeline suggest that Erin's time with Chris will end horribly, and Destroyer tightens the screws with each flashback to explain HOW Erin lost control of the situation, and why she's obsessed with setting things right. Or, as right as they can be.
This genre is my bag. I read a ton of hard-boiled detective novels, and particularly love stories that revel in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. And that's where Destroyer lives, lying in the gutters of L.A.'s grimiest streets to show how far down Erin has to go in order to snag her prey. But perhaps because I absorb a number of these stories, I found myself predicting where Destroyer would go, be it when Erin has to foil a bank robbery in progress or when Chris has to blow his own cover to heroically stop a tragedy. Destroyer doesn't break new ground, so much as it embraces the sweat-soaked and sun-burned pavement that has been walked numerous times by movies like Heat, L.A. Confidential and End of Watch (without being quite as good as those movies).
The story on Destroyer, though, will be Nicole Kidman's remarkable transformation into a street-tough protector willing to sacrifice everything that it takes to get her man. She's fantastic in the part, and I left the Toronto International Film Festival screening convinced that one of the five Best Actress nomination slots had just been filled. Let's see, in a few months, if my prediction carries any weight.