Nicole Kidman received a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Golden Globes for her performance in Karyn Kusama’s noir thriller, Destroyer, and it’s possible she could get an Academy Award nomination next week. As such, it’s only proper that we take a look at this thematic departure for the past Oscar-winner, and see if the hefty helping of praise is worth it.
With a plot that plays out like L.A. Confidential by way of Memento, Kidman stars as Erin Bell, a hardened Los Angeles detective who suffered tragedy and trauma 17 years prior to the film’s events when she and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) went undercover with a gang of bank robbers. Told mostly through flashback, the ring leader of the group has resurfaced, taunting Bell with reminders of her past, and sending her on a chase throughout the city as she tracks down the old gang for clues. Along the way she encounters some members who have reformed (Zach Villa), some who are still deep in the game (Tatiana Maslany), and some who bridge the gap (Bradley Whitford) while we slowly learn the details of a bank job gone awry.
Kidman is certainly playing against type here, perhaps more than she ever has throughout her career. Gone are her Stepford Wives glamour looks, replaced by a grizzled, pock-marked face, stringy short brown hair, and eyes that have more circles around them than a pack of raccoons. That alone might be enough for a nomination, as she basically won her Oscar for wearing a prosthetic nose. Throw in some heavy alcoholism, a penchant for getting in a knock-down, drag-out fight, and a low rumbling voice, and you’ve got a character that screams “gritty” more than a hockey mascot.
But beyond that, is there something that elevates her performance higher than any other grizzled, “play by my own rules” cop character? There are flashes of it certainly, in particular the opening scene where she stumbles upon a murder and mutters that she knows who the killer is before walking away and flipping off the detectives on site. At the same time, a lot of the erratic behavior she demonstrates beggars logic, as she constantly ignores phone calls and messages from her current partner and even her supervising officer. At some point she would have just been hauled in to answer for that. Even still, her tenacity is compelling enough to stay engaged, and there’s a lot to be said about the sheer undertaking of performing this far away from one’s comfort zone.
The only downside of her performance is in relation to Bell’s daughter Shelby, played by Jade Pettyjohn, best known for starring in the TV version of School of Rock. Shelby is a 16-year-old rebellious teenager who lives with Erin’s ex and constantly skips school to go to nightclubs and hang out with her boyfriend, who is easily in his early-to-mid 20s.
Where Kidman falls short is two-fold. When she first meets Shelby and the boyfriend, she threatens to have him arrested for statutory rape and shoves him in a bar. Both parties are thrown out by the bouncer. Honestly, I wanted more in this conflict. You want to show me how big a badass you are? Kick the ever-loving shit out of this douchebag and tell him he’s lucky he’s not rotting in prison as a sex offender for the next 20 years. Instead she ends up negotiating/bribing him to break up with Shelby, which is just weak sauce.
Secondly, when she tries to have heart-to-heart conversations with Shelby, it comes off as little more than shoehorned melodrama, a sort of emotional cost for her lifestyle and her job, the sacrifices she had to make as a cop and what not. But really, it’s all whiny and perfunctory, and more importantly, it sort of gives lie to Bell’s character, because even in a movie as far from her norms as this, Nicole Kidman still has to frame her character through the lens of motherhood, and that just cheapens the whole departure.
Does Kidman deserve to be nominated? Hard to say. This film is certainly set up for it, like may other Best Actress vehicles which focus almost entirely on the central character and surround the actress with a competent cast that won’t steal the spotlight. Similar efforts over the last few years include Room, Joy, and Still Alice, with varying degrees of success. If you don’t watch Orphan Black it’s very likely the only other actor you’ll recognize is Bradley Whitford. That’s because this film is designed for everyone else to fade into the background and give Kidman room to wow the awards voters.
Thankfully, Kidman’s performance is pretty great, so if the ploy works, I won’t be entirely pissed off about it. Is it cynical? Of course. But that doesn’t mean the film should be penalized for accomplishing its goal. In my dream field for Best Actress, she falls short, but again, there are much worse performances that I’ve seen this year that might still get nominated (*COUGHEMILYBLUNTCOUGH*) that I really can’t complain if she gets a spot as well. And if putting her in keeps the truly undeserving out, so much the better.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite against type performance? Did any of the L.A. traffic in this film confuse the hell out you? Let me know!