123 minutes/Opens Feb 14/3.5 stars
The story: Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is called to a crime scene – an unidentified man has been shot. She says she knows the victim, realising that the consequences of a job she performed years ago must be reckoned with today. Back then, with fellow cop Chris (Sebastian Stan), she had infiltrated a gang. Even as she is trying to reconcile with her estranged daughter, she has to tie up loose ends, before they do her and her daughter harm.
As it turns out, Kidman had always been in the running for the role of damaged detective Bell. It was not a case of the part going to, say, a character actress such as Melissa Leo or CCH Pounder, both of whom have played no-nonsense cops in films and television, then swapping them out when a star showed interest in the role.
The creative team decided, one guesses, that it was better to age her for the scenes set in the present day rather than hire another actress to play the younger Bell or to “youthify” an older actress like Leo or Pounder.
The weirdness of seeing a prosthetics-covered Kidman looking as if she had been living rough for decades is left behind quickly, thankfully.
This is a plot-driven thriller, so without giving too much away, it should be enough to note that her Bell, in how she carries herself as a crooked cop, brings to mind other compromised Los Angeles Police Department officers, such as the men of The Shield TV show (2002 to 2008) or the noir thriller L.A. Confidential (1997).
But those cops are smooth hypocrites; not Bell. She snarls, lumbers and barges her way through in the present day sequences, driven by pain and rage. She is a volcano on the verge of erupting – it is fun to watch a female version of Nicholas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009), but it gets exhausting after a while.
Director Karyn Kusama sees the story as a psychological horror piece about a woman tortured, mentally and physically by a sin left to fester. She revisits old places, but in an interesting twist, she is not there to atone for her past but to erase it, with violence always an option.
Tough, smart women who use their wits or their fists to get what they want has always been a Kusama forte, whose breakthrough was the boxer drama Girlfight (2000), a movie that also made Michelle Rodriguez a star. Her dark comedy Jennifer’s Body (2009), starring Megan Fox at the height of her fame, was not well received commercially or critically, but has lately been given a more positive appraisal.
Destroyer, like Jennifer’s Body, has a woman settling scores with the men who wronged them. While at times gimmicky – see Kidman’s makeup and the flashback-driven story – this combination of tense cop thriller and revenge flick does work.
Her Bell is a bold, interesting choice, making this mix of unhappy mother and human bulldozer one of the more memorable central characters in cinema today.
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