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LA Is Grim, And Nicole Kidman Is Grizzled, In 'Destroyer'

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell, a hard-boiled detective facing an old foe, in Karyn Kusama's <em>Destroyer.</em>
Annapurna Pictures
Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell, a hard-boiled detective facing an old foe, in Karyn Kusama's Destroyer.

In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman looks like a hot mess.

In the opening scene, her character, Los Angeles police detective Erin Bell, lumbers out of the car she slept in all night. She's got puffy, red eyes; dull, disheveled hair; no makeup.

Weather-beaten, she hobbles like a wounded animal to a crime scene along the concrete bank of the LA River. The raspy-voiced cop in a black leather jacket peers at a corpse with tattoos.

"What about if I know who did this?" her character asks.

The film flashes back to when she was undercover with a gang planning a heist. Now, she hunts an old nemesis.

"Erin is complicated and damaged, angry, shameful," Kidman says. "When you meet her, she's on the road to trying to atone for a lot of the bad choices she's made and the things she's done that have caused damage to others."

Her character is in every scene of the film. She alternates between trying to counsel her wayward daughter to brutally fist-fighting her foes.

"She's tough, and she's capable of fighting, and she's capable of using weapons," Kidman says. "And she's — she's got demons as well."

Nicole Kidman is currently starring in three movies. She's the queen of Atlantis in Aquaman. She's a supportive mother in the drama Boy Erased.

She's a broken-down LAPD detective in Destroyer, a dark thriller directed by Karyn Kusama. Kidman says that Kusama had her prepare for the role by watching footage of wild coyotes.

"These female coyotes with their younguns — and they're around in Silver Lake, around the reservoir — and they were [filmed] by drones," Kidman says. "And she had this footage, and I watched that. And that actually really penetrated my performance, strangely enough."

Her performance drew a rave from Claudia Puig, president of the L.A. Film Critics Association.

"This is definitely the anti-Mary Poppins," Puig says. "But it's a very well-made thriller. Nicole Kidman's performance was one of the best that she's ever given. She really transformed herself into someone that was completely different from any character we've ever seen her do and also very unusual for a woman to play: the sort of hard-bitten, often amoral detective that we see a lot of men play.

"It's a pretty twisted and dark movie to go see on Christmas Day — but maybe the day after."

Director Karyn Kusama instructs Nicole Kidman on the set of <em>Destroyer.</em>
Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures
Annapurna Pictures
Director Karyn Kusama instructs Nicole Kidman on the set of Destroyer.

Detective Erin Bell chases down informants and travels through parts of Los Angeles rarely seen on film. In fact, the same location manager from La La Land scouted sites for Destroyer: Skid Row, a colossal self-storage facility between freeways, an old Chinese diner in the gritty MacArthur Park area.

As we drove around revisiting locations from the movie, Kusama shares her vision of Los Angeles.

"Chaos, beauty, ugliness," she says. "Awe-aspiring transcendental grace. What makes Los Angeles so interesting is — it's not just frankly a beautiful city. In fact, there are many parts of it that are quite hard to look at. And then you can find yourself in some sort of pocket of paradise."

We walk up to a hidden patch of land where she shot a chase scene at night. We climb a rickety wooden staircase to get to a ridge in Elysian Park. You can see the Hollywood sign — and hear gunshots. (It's the LAPD academy firing range.)

With guns and a freight train in the distance, we walk through the forested area. The concrete trail is uneven, and graffiti is carved into the pine trees.

"There's prescription pill bottles and needles and old broken-down baby carriages," Kusama says. "I mean it's — it's an intense spot and at night it gets very intense."

We reach the top of the hill, where there's a grand vista: Dodger Stadium, with snow-capped mountains in the background. Turn around, and you see downtown LA.

"It is pretty great, right?" she says. "And yet, it's just abandoned. Here we are standing alone at the top of this perch in urban LA."

Kusama's previous films include Girlfight (2000), which was about female boxers. She directed the supernatural horror-comedy Jennifer's Body and most recently a thriller called The Invitation. All have strong female characters.

She called Destroyer a "sunlit noir."

"Because so much of it is outside and it's just so blindingly bright," Kusama says. "Erin Bell proves to be both the detective and the femme fatale, which is an unusual, sort of turning-on-its-head of the convention. Because typically in traditional noirs, women are tremendous troublemakers and very important agents in the story, but they're never the lead. And in this case, she gets to be both."

Kusama says Destroyer also harks back to films from the 1970s: Klute, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon. She says that with their flawed, morally ambiguous, alienated antiheroes, those films reflected the political climate of their time.

She sees Destroyerin that same vein.

"It's much more about a feeling of despair," Kusama says. "A sense of frustration with the larger culture, and a sense that most regular people are marginalized by the system. I feel a tremendous amount of that right now every day. And this is my way of trying to grapple with it, because I like watching a character make some terrible mistakes and make small steps toward being morally accountable, taking some personal responsibility for her own actions. And, you know, that's something I think we could all use seeing more examples of."

In a year where the biggest box office successes have starred superheroes and dinosaurs, Destroyer offers up a grim dose of reality for Christmas.

Nina Gregory edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.