Kidman falls prey to bad hair daze in Destroyer

Movie review: Destroyer

By tugging at the fake-looking locks sported by Nicole Kidman in Karyn Kusama’s ode to L.A. Noir, our critic coughs up a tangled knot of endemic sexism, and a latent desire for a little more destruction from downer Destroyer.

Destroyer

3/5

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany, Toby Kebell

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Running time: 2 hrs 1 min

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I have to be truly honest: I couldn’t get past the hair. Nicole Kidman looks as if she’s wearing a leftover wig from the ‘80s production of A Chorus Line. Stiff, lifeless and cosmetically teased, it sits like a frizzy helmet, almost destroying her authentic performance in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer by signalling something fake.

I hate that I even noticed the bad coiffure, let alone let it affect my appraisal of the movie as a whole. I also recognize the brand of endemic sexism that my hair judgment represents. I worked in TV for over a decade, and every single female anchor was either criticized for hair or clothes, but mostly hair. These slags were never, in my experience, aimed at men. They also had nothing to do with the way these women presented the news.

So, while I happily acknowledge that bringing hair into the critical equation of Destroyer is not fair to Kidman or Kusama, or even the movie as a whole, I do think it’s an important lock of thought to pull on in this context because Destroyer asks us to buy Kidman in a typically masculine role.

So, while I happily acknowledge that bringing hair into the critical equation of Destroyer is not fair to Kidman or Kusama, or even the movie as a whole, I do think it’s an important lock of thought to pull on in this context because Destroyer asks us to buy Kidman in a typically masculine role.

Taking on the role of Erin Bell, an idealistic FBI agent who got caught up in an undercover operation gone wrong, Kidman plays the brand of hardboiled detective who left her moral compass in the bottom drawer, alongside a half-empty bottle of rye and her badge.

When we first meet her, she’s stumbling out of her car to a murder scene on the concrete-lined banks of the L.A. River. “You’re dragging anchor,” one of her wiseacre colleagues cracks. She ignores him and surveys the body, paying special attention to the tattooed black circles on the back of his neck. Before long, we’re in flashback mode.

Erin also sported the same black marks on the back of her neck when she infiltrated a gang of armed robbers. She and her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), were young and relatively inexperienced agents when they were given their assignment, but they were eager to prove themselves worthy of the challenge. They launched themselves into the scary world of Silas (Toby Kebell), a sociopathic criminal with a crafty ability to manipulate others.

Moving back and forth between the flashbacks of Erin and Chris in the gang, and Erin driving around the sun-baked streets of Los Angeles looking for clues, the viewer starts to assemble his or her own narrative in a bid to put the pieces together.

Moving back and forth between the flashbacks of Erin and Chris in the gang, and Erin driving around the sun-baked streets of Los Angeles looking for clues, the viewer starts to assemble his or her own narrative in a bid to put the pieces together.

What went wrong? Why is Erin so damaged, and why does she still have a job given her current condition? Screenwriter-producers Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay pull out the film noir handbook to create scenes steeped more in ambiguity than mystery, offering Erin an endless variety of problems to sculpt her character and her approach to confrontation.

This is where the fun stuff usually resides in noir: In lapel-grabbing close-ups punctuated by dark aphorism delivered with a Bogart accent. Destroyer gives us the scenes. Erin has a chat with the local gun dealer, roughs up some thugs, and stakes out some old acquaintances. Yet, despite the endless potential for some interesting twists in the gender subtext that shadows the entire film, neither Kusama nor the screenwriters have any fun with the added contrast of the landscape.

This is where the fun stuff usually resides in noir: In lapel-grabbing close-ups punctuated by dark aphorism delivered with a Bogart accent. Destroyer gives us the scenes… Yet, despite the endless potential for some interesting twists in the gender subtext that shadows the entire film, neither Kusama nor the screenwriters have any fun with the added contrast of the landscape.

We plod along with Erin on her arid odyssey throughout the not-so-great parts of Greater Los Angeles. And scene by scene, we get kicked in the guts. Sometimes for the better. When we watch Kidman fly across the frame in a fight scene, we feel the visceral threat of broken bones.

Even with a stiff black leather jacket, sensible shoes and that drunken-stage-mom helmet of hair, she doesn’t read as physically tough. Yet, thanks to Kidman’s ability to own the camera in a  close-up, she does feel mentally tough — and capable of everything the largely unbelievable script forces her to do.

The stupid hair is just the symptom of the larger problem — with the movie, with my nagging bag of bias, and with society at large. The movie puts a wig on genre expectation, without actually addressing expectation. Erin’s actions are predictable. The only thing that’s different are her facial expressions. She shows emotion, as opposed to standard hardboiled stoicism. The feelings seem sincere. The hair smells of plastic.

The stupid hair is just the symptom of the larger problem — with the movie, with my nagging bag of bias, and with society at large.

At one point, I imagined her with stringy, greasy hair flatted by flop sweat. I concluded it would have been far more convincing. Also, that it would have looked like a very bad version of Nicole Kidman instead of Nicole Kidman wearing what looks like a bad wig.

From there, I strayed into loose thoughts about how we assign value to each gender, and how thoroughly conditioned I must be by the male-dominated gaze to have my judgment so obstructed by appearance.

By the time the movie ended with a gratifying, but still a downer, of a flourish, I was still mesmerized my Kidman’s full commitment to the role. Yet, disappointed it was largely in vain. Destroyer lives up to its title on the page, but by putting a strong-willed woman in the middle of the action, Destroyer needed to destroy more than a selection of foes. It needed to search and destroy the shadow enemy that lives within us all: How we process appearance, calculate value and assign social status. That might seem like a lot to ask of any piece of entertainment, but movies have always served up a fictional social order, and these days, it may as well be reality.

@katherinemonk

Main image: Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer. Courtesy of Elevation Pictures and Annapurna Pictures.
THE EX-PRESS, January 25, 2019

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Review: Destroyer

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2 (7 Votes)

Summary

3Score

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I have to be truly honest: I couldn’t get past the hair. Nicole Kidman looks as if she’s wearing a leftover wig from the ‘80s production of A Chorus Line. Stiff, lifeless and cosmetically teased, it sits like a frizzy helmet, almost destroying her authentic performance in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer by signalling something fake. -- Katherine Monk

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