Monday, December 24, 2018

Destroyer: Nicole Kidman Undercover

Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, an undercover cop, whose soul has been scarred by the time she was immersive in a violent criminal gang, headed by an unstable charismatic leader. The Scientology jokes just write themselves, right? As a bonus, it also happens to be a good movie, but it is hard to watch at times (or at least it is supposed to be). Bell gets the heck beat out of her badly and often in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (trailer here), which opens tonight in New York.

Bell is such a haggard wreck, she has become a walking cautionary example for the entire LAPD. When she was young and idealistic, she joined “Chris” from the FBI in an undercover sting operation to take down Silas’s drug-fueled gang of hippie armed robbers. They worked so well together, their cover as lovers became true in real life, at least as far as they could tell the two apart. However, things still turned out badly—really, really badly.

Frankly, Bell never truly got over the fiasco (that viewers see unfold during a series of flashbacks), so when she receives one of the ink-stained bills from the fateful armed robbery in the mail, she is only too willing to dive back down the rabbit hole. Soon, she is shadowing or shaking down Silas’s known associates, only occasionally stopping to pay some belated attention to her resentful daughter.

No kidding, that really is Nicole Kidman on the one-sheet. Obviously, this is not Moulin Rouge. She has taken her share of flak for being “box office poison,” but you have to give Kidman credit taking such a grungy, anti-glamorous, dissolute anti-hero role. She takes worse abuse than Jack Nicholson gets as Jake Gittes in Chinatown. This is a ferocious performance that shows tremendous range and takes her to some very dark places. Honestly, nobody should begrudge her the awards talk. It is such a good performance, it can’t even be sabotaged by the film’s narrative gamesmanship.

Kidman owns the movie, plain and simple, so it is hard to fault most of her co-stars for getting blown off the screen. However, Bradley Whitford (from Cabin in the Woods and the Broadway revival of Boeing, Boeing) somehow manages to briefly outshine her as Silas’s spectacularly sleazy attorney, DiFranco. Tatiana Maslany also matches Kidman’s willingness to glam down and roughen up as Petra, Silas’s former lover, down-graded to errand-running hench-person.

At times, Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi’s screenplay is too clever for its own good, but Kusama always keeps it totally grounded in LA seediness. She makes viewers feel all the city’s heat and grime. She also stages a brutally effective bank robbery-turned shootout. This is some bravura work from Kidman and Kusama that not surprisingly comes with some rough edges. Recommended for thriller fans who take their coffee black and their hard alcohol without chasers, Destroyer opens tonight (12/24) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark 57.