Nicole Kidman’s face is so familiar from the cover of People that we might forget that she can still play other people. In Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, Kidman plays people like us. Her character, Erin Bell, is haggard, unfit, and alcoholic, and a failure at work, marriage and parenting. Kidman is at her best when playing characters we dislike — the psychopathically ambitious weather girl in To Die For and the implausible spouse of Tom Cruise. Destroyer is Kidman at her intense and evocative best, as well as a proof of life that reinvents that venerable genre, the LA detective movie.
It’s Chinatown all over again. A cold case comes back to life when a corpse turns up with three dots tattooed on the back of his neck and a bag of dollar bills bearing the purple ink that betrays their origins in a bank robbery. Then another purple-stained bill turns up in the mail at Bell’s office. She must return to sender, and to the scene of the crime: to Silas, the leader of the robbers, and to an undercover job gone wrong. One trail is a procedural working through the members of Silas’s gang, the other works towards a reckoning with a guilt that, like the purple ink on the stolen bills, has spread until it threatens to ruin everything she values, including her 16 year-old daughter.
Destroyer is recognizably in the tradition of LA procedurals — The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, LA Confidential — and its twin-track, time-tinkering plot structure is reminiscent of Memento. But the motive force here is revenge, not justice. Destroyer is a Western inside a western, and Kidman’s character closer to that of Clint Eastwood in his heyday as gnomic gunfighter than to the wisecracking detectives of Raymond Chandler.
The lady vanishes: Bell is a police detective of the oldest school, a hard-drinking disaster who walks like she is dragging a ball and chain. The lines are still throwaway, but they’re less wisecracks than the wisdom of the crack-up. Like Jake in Chinatown, she detects the crime and confronts the criminal, but the moral framework of Los Angeles has dissolved. Her daughter’s older boyfriend laughs in her face when, catching her daughter drinking underage, she flashes her badge. The corrupt lawyer laughs in her face when she confronts him in his mansion by the sea. Silas’s girlfriend laughs in her face when Bell has cuffed her to the furniture.
No one is accountable, and no one cares. LA has rarely looked nastier, or more like a city at the end of its tether and its time. The outdoor light is too bright, polarizing into black and white. The interiors are scorched with browns and orange, or dirty with cream. When a bank robbery turns into a shoot-out, the bullets send up clouds of Formica when they hit the furniture. The modern West is no more substantial than the fake, red-painted frontier town where Clint Eastwood makes his stand in High Plains Drifter.
As in a Spaghetti Western, Bell must become the force of the law. The belle of Kidman’s flashback scenes is the beast of the contemporary revenge drama. The difference is that Clint Eastwood was free to be The Man With No Name. His motive for revenge was usually the rape and killing of his family, a disaster so total as to cut him any which way but loose from any reason for living other than revenge. Bell remains connected to her husband and daughter, and unable to restore or sever the connection. Eastwood’s emotions are cauterized by loss, and there’s always a saddlebag of money to be won. Bell’s pain is alive, and the money cannot be spent. Her backstory is front and center, her necessary violence a form of self-harm.
The avenging angel is a dead woman walking. Bell is too compelled to return to her personal Chinatown, and degraded by grief she will do anything to get her man. After giving manual relief to a dying criminal in a trade for information, she wipes her hand on her shirt. To get an idea of how the tough tropes of personal revenge are transformed when a woman directs a woman in the role, imagine Clint Eastwood performing those moves in one of his supposedly remorseless searches for rough justice. The dignity of the male hero and the vanity of the male audience make it impermissible. Clint wouldn’t even do that for Clyde the gorilla.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.