Of all the film subgenres that provide ground for pure camp, self-serious Oscar-bait must be the most fertile. A movie like Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is so bleak and unsmiling that it doesn’t even allow room for a knowing wink, let alone comic relief. This is the kind of exercise in stylized grit that features a sober scene in which a woman jerks off a man in order to extract... information from him. So bone dry is Destroyer’s sensibility that just one askew component is enough to send it way over the top, the humor amplifying precisely because it’s crafted to be so unfunny, like when you think of something humorous in church that becomes exponentially more humorous because you’re not supposed to be laughing.
Said component is Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic-laden face, which from varying angles is reminiscent of Regan from The Exorcist or an extra from the original Planet of the Apes movies. Despite her attempt to really sink into her hardened-cop character, Nicole Kidman in Destroyer is never not Nicole Kidman under some bad makeup that seems mostly calculated to make her “ugly” for awards-season gold (just like she and her putty nose did in 2002's The Hours... and it worked so well, it got her the Oscar!) The effect is as absurd as it would be were she wearing a rubber Richard Nixon mask or clown makeup the entire time.
I watched Destroyer in bed (via screener) over the holiday break while slightly hungover and groggy. It is the perfect movie for such an occasion. Everything seemed so ridiculous that it was practically surreal. I could not believe what I was seeing despite the movie’s adamance that I keep looking and looking and looking at Nicole Kidman’s ridiculously altered face. I stopped counting the discrete scenarios in which her prosthetics are featured in close-up (including behind the barrel of a gun, gasping almost crosseyed on the ground, and driving and driving and driving) after I got to 25.
“Look at her!” says this movie.
“Look long and hard and good.”
“It’s a face, you see.”
“You might think this face is unbelievable, but think again and believe and if you don’t believe too bad because it’s here and it’s real (and also totally fake).”
Multiple characters comment on this face of hers. Two of her police colleagues whine, “Oh for fuck’s sake,” and “Jesus Christ,” when they see her ambling up to them, walking with a shoulder sway that reminded me of a 12-year-old who’s trying to be cool. Another character refers to her “hang dog look,” and yet another tells her, “Jesus, you look old,” on sight. She’s got a face, see, and she’s not afraid to use it.
The plot concerns the reemergence of Silas (Toby Kebbell), a former leader of a gang with cult-like features that Kidman’s character Erin Bell once investigated. The movie flips back and forth in time, from her present-day hunt for Silas to extended flashbacks from 16 years before while she was undercover as part of Silas’s gang. Back then, she didn’t look so beat up, but she was still wearing prosthetics—they gave her the waxen look of a puppet from The Dark Crystal underneath Mary Hartman’s haircut.
Kusama’s roaming timeline (using a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) results in a needlessly convoluted movie in which reasonable explanations to previous suggested plot points are embedded like rewards. I get the sense that if it were presented in chronological order, it would have been laughably simplistic. And of course, this movie does not leave any room for laughing along with it, only at it. As a procedural, Destroyer plods with a mind-numbing straightforwardness: Bell approaches an associate who tells her where she can find the next associate, and so on, until her path leads to Silas. In terms of its present-day structure, it reminded me of Winter’s Bone or even Alice in Wonderland, but, you know, bad.
Kidman’s Bell has a hair-trigger temper that is reminiscent of that of Nomi Malone in Showgirls (one scene ends with her howling, “She’s underage. In your fuckin’ bar!!!” after a bar fight with her 16-year-old daughter’s considerably older boyfriend). She’s technically a bad cop in that she’s willing to break the law for her own gain, but her motivations are mostly reasonable and well explained—she isn’t afforded the hedonistic zeal of, say, Harvey Keitel’s LT character in Bad Lieutenant. We get to see her kick ass occasionally, which is like getting watch a puppet, resplendent in her uncanny valley aesthetic, kick ass occasionally.
Which is fun. I don’t think Destroyer is a good movie, but it is never boring and often hilarious. (Please stick around for the scene in which Kidman bludgeons a man to near death or perhaps just death with a soap dish.) I rewatched it in a more lucid frame of mind and I almost appreciated the fractured timeline (as a way of reiterating that the past is not dead, nor even past, or some shit) and can now acknowledge that so few movies are as sensitive to the physical effects that hard living has on the body (Kidman’s character is one of several whose appearance is severely altered as a result of the time jump). But that near appreciation did nothing to stifle my near constant giggling, even on the second time around.
Destroyer is currently playing in theaters.