There has long been a stereotype of violent, corrupt, and alcoholic police officers in movies, with the common denominator almost always being that they’re played by men. It’s a rarity when a woman gets to explore the dark side of being a cop, something that Nicole Kidman does with aplomb in Destroyer.
The film revolves around Erin Bell (Kidman), a police veteran who went off the deep end long ago. As the film begins, she’s reminded of a sordid event in her undercover past, thanks to a new murder. She spends the remainder of the movie trying to track down the leader of the gang with which she went undercover, desperate to try to make things right.
The film is structured almost 50/50 to show Bell’s current activities and flashbacks to her undercover work, and the difference between the two times is stark. In her younger years, Bell was idealistic and beautiful. The intervening 17 years have ravaged her in more ways than one, leaving her disillusioned and perpetually drunk, with her face showing extreme aging due to the drinking.
Director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hays and Matt Manfredi slowly unveil Bell’s many layers, which reveal her relationship with a former lover, Chris (Sebastian Stan), as well as tension-filled current-day scenes with her daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). While actual revelations are withheld until late in the film, the filmmakers keep the story at a brisk pace by expertly interweaving events of the present and the past.
Kidman, who’s been nominated for four Oscars and won one, seems to be getting better with age. The makeup used for the older version of Bell plays a part in her phenomenal performance, but her commitment to the role would make it a winner no matter what. She earns every bit of Bell’s dismal personality, and deserves to be in the running come Oscars time.
While Kidman is the undeniable star of the film, she’s aided by a number of recognizable actors in supporting roles who are almost universally great. In addition to Stan, who finally gets to escape the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scoot McNairy, Tatiana Maslany, and Bradley Whitford all pop up in memorable roles.
On paper, Destroyer is your standard cop drama, but it’s elevated by a superb performance by Kidman and storytelling that remains focused on the human cost of police work instead of any particular case.