Nicole Kidman Sizzles in L.A. Movie 'Destroyer'
Everything you need to know about Karyn Kusama's new movie can be summed up in its opening shot. Credits dissolve and we fade in on the face of Nicole Kidman. At least, we kinda vaguely recognize it to be Nicole Kidman. She looks bad. Really bad. Bags under her eyes, face worn. For several seconds all we see is her face, overexposed, practically glowing underneath the Southern California sun. She looks tired, physically and mentally. She closes her eyes in resignation.
Allow me to explain.
For many, it will be difficult to ever get past that face. Nicole Kidman is very famous. She has been for 30+ years. Not only that, she's famous for being attractive. If we're being honest, famous for being an object of male moviegoer's sexual desire. Back to Moulin Rouge! in 2001, back to Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, all the way back to Days of Thunder in 1990. And though I haven't seen it, I'm almost certain it goes back to her first project in 1983, judging by the title Skin Deep.
Now, for the first time, she's ugly! It's the latest entry in a long lineage of attractive actors (male and female) who want to really show they're going for it with a performance by sporting a "de-glam" look. As gimmicky as it might be, it almost always works. Kidman is fantastic in this movie, carrying it from start to finish. She showes some depth and nuance that I never knew she had, and even nails a number of tricky action sequences.
But de-glammed Kidman also kind of hijacks the movie. There are lingering close-ups of her ugly-i-fied face in basically every scene. It's distracting. Plus, it's very hard to totally immerse yourself in the world of the movie knowing you're looking at ugly Nicole Kidman. (For the life of me, I can't even remember what her character's name is. That says something.) This is not the first time a big star has overwhelmed a small movie.
Which isn't to say Kidman spoiled or ruined the movie in any way. It's a good movie, well constructed, operating on multiple timelines in a way that works to reveal plot points when necessary, and coming through with a nice twist ending. We're talking about cops and robbers for goodness sake! It's intense and action-packed, at times hyper-violent, filled with bank robberies and undercover agents and breadcrumb investigations. All the good stuff. (Quick s/o to a great supporting cast: Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford)
But let's return to that opening shot, of Kidman's face glowing in the golden sunshine so specific to one area of the world. Make no mistake, this is an L.A. movie. In setting, yes, but more importantly in concept.
The legendary documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, written and directed by Thom Anderson, posits the idea of the city as a Garden of Eden, a utopian oasis corrupted by some kind of "original sin." It's a city that had everything, Anderson says, and then wanted a little bit more. Because of that greed, it's cursed. The sunshine and fame and fortune now rings hollow. It's nothing more than an illusion of paradise (both alluded to and propped up by its multi-billion dollar mythmaking industry, Anderson concludes).
Without giving away the plot of Destroyer, I basically just gave away the plot of Destroyer. Having it all, wanting a little more, flying too close to the sun and then getting burned. In the case of Kidman's face, maybe literally burned?
But Kusama goes a step further and plays out the struggle of life after that burning, the hopeless scramble out of the rabbit hole until finally you finally resign...close your eyes...let the burn of that Los Angeles sun just take you away.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
A much pulpy-er version of the same theme, this late-90s double Oscar-winner is probably more interested in adding to the Los Angeles mythology than deconstructing it. In fact, it's one of the source materials cited in Thom Anderson's documentary because of its depiction of classic 1950s L.A. noir aesthetic. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it's cops and robbers done at the very highest level, with an amount of phoniness and double-crossing appropriate for its west coast setting. Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, and James Cromwell fill out a stacked cast, who draw you in and keep you locked as a somewhat complex plot unfolds, coming together finally in a satisfactory conclusion. There are few movies as entertaining to return to time and time again than this for me.
The Invitation (2015)
An even better Karyn Kusama movie! This one belongs to the rare category of "deeply disturbing," alongside the likes of Gone Girl and Annihilation. It's not scary, it's more unsettling, the type of movie that you need to watch two episodes of The Office after finishing in order to restore your faith in humanity.
You want to talk about a puzzle pieces movie? Bingo. This is it. For a large portion of the narrative you have absolutely no clue what is going on as the pieces are being laid out and shuffled around. But you're hooked, by equal parts fascination and dread, and then all the pieces suddenly snap into place in one incredibly-staged climax which pays off all of the edge-of-your-seat anticipation. It's a feat of craftsmanship, demonstrating the very best of what small, independent films can do. I couldn't recommend it more highly (just know, you've been warned).