Our Nic has undergone plenty of remarkable transformations throughout her career – from BMX Bandit to Kubrick muse, from prickly Virginia Woolf to nurturing Sue Brierley – but none can quite prepare you for the gun-toting, ass-kicking, self-loathing Kidman of Destroyer, an eye-opening Los Angeles-set thriller from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body).
Kidman’s Erin Bell is an unstable police detective who goes rogue in her attempt to track down a violent bank robber, Silas (Toby Kebbell). Silas has reappeared in Los Angeles 17 years after Erin’s disastrous attempt to infiltrate his gang, and she's on a mission of vengeance. At the same time she is trying – and failing – to bond with her 16-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), who has taken up with a boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks and whose life seems about to slide into criminality.
The film, which has Kidman playing both the young and risk-taking undercover cop and the emaciated shell of a person she has become, is a classic LA noir in the tradition of Chinatown and Heat that also offers a fresh take on the genre, thanks to a central character whose choices and motivations are inextricably tied up with her gender. The film is directed by Karyn Kusama, whose movies are noteworthy for exploring this territory. Kusama spoke to Time Out Australia recently via telephone.
Karyn, your husband and his writing partner scripted Destroyer, but you had a lot of input into its creation, is that right?
I’m really lucky to be working with Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi for the third time on this film, and because we have created such a circle of trust I was let into the process when they were outlining. It gave me more opportunity to talk about my aesthetic and emotional and creative priorities with them.
And what were those priorities in terms of theme?
I received the first draft in the summer of 2016 and we’d been talking about it for a couple of years prior to that. But in that time period Donald Trump became our president. [Laughs] And there was just this fascinating shift that occurred for me, in which I really had to think in a very broad and deep way about accountability. And what does accountability and taking responsibility for your actions look like?
[In Destroyer] we were watching a character move painfully toward taking some responsibility for her mistakes into her life and communicating that to her daughter. For me, the way in which genre films can address a political impulse without being overtly political in the storytelling was very interesting to me, and that was the central feature of the script that really kept me creatively interested.
Nicole Kidman is stunning in this – she seems to disappear into her character. How did she become involved?
She came to us. She read the script and she immediately reached out. Nicole and I had already met a few times to introduce ourselves to each other and I have to say she is one of the most proactive actors I know in terms of reaching out to filmmakers before they have anything to offer her and just saying, “I’d like to work with you, let’s find something to do together.” That’s in large part how she’s managed to have such an eclectic and daring résumé.
"Nicole said, 'This character is so filled with shame. And shame deforms you.'"
At those first meetings with Nicole it was clear she was responding to the character on a pure gut level. She said to me at one point, “This character is so filled with shame. And shame deforms you. It deforms your body and your mind.” At that point, I hadn’t been thinking about her shame, I was thinking about this corrupt world that she lived in, but she brought it right to the heart of what I think makes the movie so powerful. She helped me understand the character a lot quicker and better.
She [also] mentioned that she’s playing a character that is almost completely shut down emotionally, and Nicole almost never does that. She’s always playing people that are available in some way to their own emotions. Because she is so not like the character, as you can probably imagine! It’s interesting to think that’s what drew her to it.
You plucked Michelle Rodriguez from obscurity to star in your debut movie, Girlfight (2000). Do you take the any credit for her success?
I hope so! It’s complicated, because for me, making that film many years ago, I had the distinct feeling, as all of a sudden the spotlight was turned on her – I just wondered if I was throwing her to the wolves. Because this is a tough business.
Hopefully with a happy result though.
When people enjoy watching [Rodriguez] on screen she gives off a charisma that is very unusual and unmatched by other actors like her. Her screen presence is something that crystallises my interests generally in movies, to do with a kind of broader spectrum of how we approach gender and how we ascribe meaning to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Michelle literally lives on all of those razor’s edges, and does so effortlessly.
Can you think of a film that influenced you in the making of Destroyer?
I was probably way too young to understand it, but I saw The Parallax View with Warren Beatty  alone in a repertory theatre in St Louis Missouri where I grew up. And that film had this kind of dread and suspense and sense of mystery about all of the characters. It was so hard to tell who was on the right side of morality, and that kind of lawlessness I continued to think about as I was making Destroyer – that sense of not knowing who or what or how to trust what was in front of us.
You build such a climate of fear in this movie. Is that a product of your times?
I talk frequently about how much I want to take a step away from the dark material I’m attracted to. The reason I keep coming back to it is I feel that it’s authentic. If I could make Wizard of Oz I would. If I could make The Sound of Music I would try. I just don’t know how.
Destroyer opens Thursday March 21.