Tuesday 22 January 2019

Risky business: "Destroyer"

Let's give Nicole Kidman this. When Eyes Wide Shut opened to mixed reviews and box-office back in late 1999, Tom Cruise's immediate response was to restart the Mission: Impossible franchise and thus resume his career as the American cinema's last truly indomitable hero: always winning. Kidman, by contrast, was inspired to stick out that swan-like neck even further. Over the next two decades, she would work with, among others, Baz Luhrmann (on Moulin Rouge! and Australia), Lars von Trier (Dogville), Jonathan Glazer (Birth), Park Chan-wook (Stoker) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer); in retrospect it was this actress's most overtly commercial choices (the Stepford Wives redo, Bewitched, The Golden Compass) which generated the least persuasive cinema. The risk Kidman takes with Karyn Kusama's murky police procedural Destroyer is not dissimilar to that Charlize Theron took with 2003's Monster: to put herself in the hands of a female director who determinedly strips away the layers of glamour that have attached themselves to a performer over successive perfume campaigns, uglifying her lead to the point where she becomes not just unrecognisable but very hard to look at. Where Cruise is always, on some level, recognisably Cruise, Kidman becomes somebody else entirely for this one; the question is whether there's an audience that really wants or needs to see it.

The star's transformation into Detective Erin Bell, an undercover cop who's burnt through multiple identities and seen a lot of bad things and people along the way (and now sleeps in her car for her troubles) is Destroyer's main event: as indicated by Kusama's insistently dingy interiors and the non-entities making up the supporting cast, there is literally nothing else to see here. We are alerted to this feat of hair and make-up in none-too-subtle terms - Erin is told "you look terrible" and "you look old"; we await the "you look like shit" that might complete the trifecta - then dispatched after our heroine as she meets with various ne'er-do-wells, seeking to resolve some unfinished business with the gang of bank robbers she infiltrated years before. Regular flashbacks to these less-than-halcyon days remind us of the fresher-faced, auburn-tressed Kidman we know and David Thomson loves, and point up the extent to which both character and actress have been worked over, but never are we sucked into Erin's all-consuming obsession: it's presented from the off as a given - written into the unprimped wanness of the Kidman visage - and then ploddingly explained to us. It's a script problem more than anything else. We need to know exactly how Erin parted company with the gang to fully comprehend or empathise with her present-day predicament, and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Ride Along, R.I.P.D., Ride Along 2) only deign to give us that in the closing flashbacks, by which point we're all too numbed and fed up to go back and watch Destroyer all over again. 

After 45 minutes of footdragging, you twig what this project must have become for the creatives attached: an attempt to regain some of the territory recently claimed by True Detective on TV. I found that show's gruesomely self-serious knuckle-cracking unwatchable beyond two joyless episodes; Destroyer is almost exactly two hours, so its self-seriousness is at least self-contained, but in truth it's no more thrilling or engaging. Kusama made a knockout debut (with 2000's Girlfight), then was unlucky in her follow-ups (2005's underappreciated Aeon Flux, 2009's missold Jennifer's Body) before clawing her way back into the conversation via Netflix (who backed 2015's nifty The Invitation, a far smarter Hay-Manfredi script); perhaps she saw Destroyer as a chance to enter the kind of macho movie space traditionally allotted to men. A midfilm robbery allows the pulse rate to spike a little, but elsewhere any dramatic force is muffled by endless scenes in which Erin pistolwhips anybody who stands between her and her goal, and we arrive at a finale that strives none too convincingly to make a transcendentally big event out of a relatively inconsequential passing in the vast cosmic scale of things. Here, as elsewhere, Kidman does with her wig what she did with her phoney hooter as The Hours' Virginia Woolf: she commits fully to the wearing of it, and that may be enough for some. It remains a cruel irony of the movie business, however, that where the safe bets Cruise has been placing have almost always paid off - which is both the pleasure and the limitation of the various Missions: Impossible - Kidman's recent risks (Sacred Deer, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, now this) have barely merited the gamble. Better luck next time?

Destroyer opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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