Men have almost always played the bad cops in the movies, so Destroyer, the new independent film starring a near unrecogniseable Nicole Kidman comes as a refreshing inversion of genre expectations.

As LAPD detective Erin Bell, Kidman looks like an unsightly mess. A damaged, tortured person, we learn that a primary contributor to her present state was the time she spent undercover many years ago. When we are introduced to her, it’s in the midst of her investigating a murder that seems to have a connection with her past and the resurgence of a figure she is desperate to track down for reasons we don’t fully understand at first. The mystery of the film unravels slowly, in quiet, sometimes violent flashbacks, that provides pieces of the narrative puzzle. In conducting her own solo, semi-official investigation, Bell comes across as remorseless and amoral in her methods, exceeding the lines of acceptability in conducting police procedures.

Destroyer is old fashioned and relentlessly grim. As a film, it may be seen or perhaps even be misconstrued by some to be a vanity project for its star to display her acting chops when put through the wringer, sans makeup, but this verdict falls apart when you consider Kidman has already won an Academy Award and has little to prove to anyone anymore. Her director, Karyn Kusama, makes some very smart choices in telling the story, shifting between past and present with graceful efficiency but also giving the film an elliptical quality that reinforces the cyclic madness and confusion of Bell’s life where the past can come back when its least expected. These filmmaking choices, partially attributable to the script as well, keep us engaged, even when the proceedings go through very familiar terrain (broken family, lost love etc.).

Kidman’s character has a self-destructive demeanour. Juxtaposed with her memories of the time she spent working undercover with the criminal gang, you are made to ask yourself what transpired during her time there and in the sixteen years since to turn her into what she is, until you realise Bell really has become like one of these criminals. Her physical characteristics resemble those of other former junkies she encounters from her past; her frail frame, her raspy whispering voice, her skeletal features a reminder of the damage she did to herself in servitude. All of this is rather remarkably conveyed by Kidman’s haunting expressions. If the whole purpose of a truly transformative performance, the kind where the person playing it is largely altered, is to separate the movie star from the thespian, Kidman completely succeeds.

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Faizan Rashid

A veteran Dubai based film critic, Faizan has been reviewing movies for nearly a decade. His work has been published in local newspapers such as 7days and on prestigious online websites such as MSN Arabia and