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

Dec 24, 2018
Originally published on December 24, 2018 7:49 am

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 Destroyer.
Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

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 Destroyer in 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 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Noel King.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Nicole Kidman has been pretty busy. She is currently starring in three movies, as the queen of Atlantis in "Aquaman," as a supportive mother in the drama "Boy Erased" and as a broken-down LAPD detective in "Destroyer." That last one - a dark thriller - comes out tomorrow. And let's just say it's a counterpoint to Christmas cheer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) I'm taking these with me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What? Hey.

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Yeah. You want them back, call me with names.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Don't do it, fool.

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Call me with names.

GREENE: NPR's Mandalit del Barco interviewed Kidman and her director, Karyn Kusama, about the making of "Destroyer."

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In "Destroyer," Nicole Kidman looks like a hot mess - puffy, red eyes, dull, disheveled hair, no makeup, weather-beaten.

In the opening scene, her character, LAPD Detective Erin Bell, lumbers out of the car she slept in all night. She hobbles like a wounded animal to a crime scene along the concrete bank of the LA River.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Who is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No ID, no idea.

DEL BARCO: The raspy-voiced cop in a black leather jacket peers at a corpse with tattoos.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) What about if I know who did this?

DEL BARCO: The film flashes back to when she was undercover with a gang planning a heist. And now, she hunts an old nemesis. Here's Kidman's take on her character.

KIDMAN: I mean, Erin is complicated and damaged, angry, shameful. 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.

DEL BARCO: Her character is in every scene of the film. She alternates between trying to counsel her wayward daughter...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) I need to be able to find you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Why?

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Because I just do.

DEL BARCO: ...To brutally fist fighting her foes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell, grunting).

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

DEL BARCO: Kidman says director Karyn Kusama had her prepare for the role by watching footage of wild coyotes.

KIDMAN: These female coyotes with their young'uns, and they're around the - in Silver Lake, around the reservoir, and they were shot by drones. And she had this footage, and I watched that. And that actually really penetrated my performance, strangely enough.

CLAUDIA PUIG: This is definitely the anti-Mary Poppins. But it's a very well-made thriller.

DEL BARCO: Claudia Puig is president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

PUIG: It's 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) I just want to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I don't know why you're...

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Stop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You don't need to do this.

DEL BARCO: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

DEL BARCO: As we drive around revisiting locations, director Karyn Kusama gives her vision of LA.

KARYN KUSAMA: Chaos, beauty, ugliness, awe-inspiring 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.

DEL BARCO: Kusama takes me and my editor Nina Gregory 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. So from here, you can see the Hollywood sign.

KUSAMA: Yeah. We're pretty high, actually, right now in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

DEL BARCO: Is that gunshots or fireworks?

KUSAMA: LAPD training - that's where they shoot.

DEL BARCO: Fitting.

KUSAMA: Yes (laughter). It is. It is.

DEL BARCO: With the sounds of the police academy firing range and a freight train in the distance, we walk through the forested area on an uneven concrete trail past graffiti-carved pine trees.

KUSAMA: There's prescription pill bottles and needles and old, broken-down baby carriages. I mean, it's an intense spot. And at night, it gets very intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

DEL BARCO: We climb to the top of the hill to a grand vista.

KUSAMA: And here's Dodger Stadium. Then you turn around, and there's downtown LA.

DEL BARCO: Wow, this is amazing.

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

DEL BARCO: Kusama's previous films include "Girlfight," from 2000, 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 calls "Destroyer" a sunlit noir.

KUSAMA: Because so much of it is outside, and it's just so blindingly bright. Erin Bell proves to be both the detective and the femme fatale. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: Kusama says "Destroyer" also harkens back to films from the 1970s, like "Klute."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KLUTE")

JANE FONDA: (As Bree Daniels) Why do I still want to trick?

DEL BARCO: And "Taxi Driver."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) You talking to me?

DEL BARCO: And "Dog Day Afternoon."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON")

AL PACINO: (As Sonny) He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it. Attica. Attica. Attica.

DEL BARCO: Kusama says with flawed, morally ambiguous, alienated antiheroes, those films reflected the political climate of the times. She sees "Destroyer" in that same vein.

KUSAMA: It's much more about a feeling of despair, 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.

DEL BARCO: In a year where the biggest box office successes have starred superheroes and dinosaurs, "Destroyer" offers up a grim dose of reality for Christmas. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEODORE SHAPIRO'S "ECSTASY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.