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Destroyer (2018)

“I’m not interested in what I know,” Nicole Kidman said of her near four-decade career in acting. “I’m interested in what I don’t know.”

In conversation with Vanity Fair’s Krista Smith at this year’s AFI Fest, Kidman dominated the conversation with her years of wisdom. She is rare among actors in her refusal to adhere to a single persona or gimmick. In her years, she’s done it all—sex symbol, sociopath, love interest, heroine, parent, mentor. She can play the chameleon, but she can do just as much, even more, just with her beauty and her magnetic blue eyes.

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer opens on Kidman’s eyes, illuminating in the dry Los Angeles sunshine. An emaciated, graying Kidman limps out of her car, shocking first responders at the scene of a dead body. Toxic memories bubbles to the surface as she observes the scene, clad in a rugged leather jacket and clothing that has grown tattered. Soon, her trademark eyes are not elegance but hell frozen over.

We have reached Peak Nicole Kidman

Kidman gives the performance of her career as Erin Bell, an L.A. sheriff deputy sent undercover by the FBI. Her mission: bring Silas (Toby Kebbell), a trashy gangster with a cult of like-minded drug addicts and armed robbers, to justice. She is paired with fellow undercover cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) to play the part of a naïve couple in the circle. In the hedonistic cloud of Silas’ influence, the detail threatens the safety of Erin and Chris, signaling a downward spiral into obsession and vengeance.

Equal measures humane and nihilistic, Destroyer is the chronicle of one woman’s ruthless pursuit of closure to her trauma. From the first scene, Kidman is iconic as Erin. She is a ghost of the past, pushing the limits of her strength to clear her life of chaos. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay pulls no punches in showing how flawed Erin is. She struggles for redemption with the Silas detail while trying to ensure a better life for her teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). She treats danger as safety, stalking Silas’ associates in an unmarked car with a fully automatic submachine gun in her trunk.

Like its unstable protagonist, Destroyer is an unpredictable juggernaut. In flashback, we watch inevitable tragedy unfold in real time. Kusama perfectly captures the gritty, nihilistic dread of 80’s cop thrillers like To Live and Die in L.A. or Cop. Erin Bell’s unwavering journey has plenty of nasty moments that evoke those films.

She exasperates a bank robbery to beat an opportunistic Silas accomplice (Tatiana Maslany) into submission and pays a tense visit to the sleazy money launderer (Bradley Whitford, sinister as ever) that still keeps Silas afloat. She becomes increasingly aggressive about Shelby’s older, white-trash boyfriend (Beau Knapp) and trying to keep a check on her estranged boyfriend (Scoot McNairy).

What makes Destroyer one of 2018’s best films?

Had Destroyer stuck to the meat and potatoes of Erin’s fury, it would have been a riveting potboiler. However, Kusama’s direction elevates the film to perfection by scrambling the narrative and implying a sense of hope. Kidman, even in her darkest moment, gives it such. By infusing the struggles of her family and personal relationships, the real violence is emotional, not physical. In that regard, it’s closer to No Country for Old Men than Heat.

The Los Angeles of Destroyer is a hopeless cesspool that does not help matters. Criminals and junkies run rampant. Law enforcement makes noble steps to fix the problem, only to find matters gone to hell. To survive, Erin’s only hope is to disrupt all parties in her path. She is fearless, albeit not by choice. Her soul is consumed and corrupted by her life’s turbulence.

A predator of sorts, she thrives in confrontation so much that her chirpy file photo from the sheriff’s department might as well be a lookalike. Daylight is gorgeously exploited by rising cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, whose sense of atmosphere shows rightful promise for a pivot in film.

Without Kusama and her primarily female crew, Destroyer‘s apocalyptic worldview would be overwhelming. A male director would have gone in an aggressive, tasteless direction. It’s a perfect example of the power of female directors thanks to Kusama’s compassion for the screenplay and characters.

Erin Bell is a character that Nicole Kidman has never known. This is not an against-type performance but additional proof of her versatility. Accompanying her is a film whose raw power I will soon not forget and this year’s most unique storytelling. While I cannot decisively call Destroyer the best film of 2018, it is an astounding frontrunner.

Destroyer opens in limited release on December 25. An expanded release is planned for January.

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