Nicole Kidman, undeniably one of the best actresses of her generation, seems to be getting her due in the wake of winning just about every award for which she was eligible for "Big Little Lies." She comes to TIFF this year with two very different films, displaying her stunning range and ability to elevate material that wouldn’t be nearly as good without her. Once again, Kidman’s the best thing about both movies she brings to Toronto, although she can’t quite do enough to save one of them.
The better of the two is Karyn Kusama’s brutal “Destroyer,” which basically turns Kidman into a dead woman walking. With heavy makeup, Kidman has never looked more disheveled, playing a self-destructive cop who essentially died 16 years ago when an undercover job went horribly awry. She’s a shell of a human being, just biding time until she does something stupid enough to actually die. Her eyes are bloodshot and shallow, and Kidman’s work is transformative.
Her character is named Erin Bell, an L.A. cop who realizes that a ghost from her past has resurfaced. Years earlier, Erin was a part of an undercover gig with a partner—in work and love—Chris (Sebastian Stan), in which the young officers infiltrated a gang led by a monster named Silas (Toby Kebbell). Something clearly went horribly wrong—and I wish “Destroyer” was a little more upfront about Erin’s background instead of revealing it like a mystery—and now she sees a chance to finally close this chapter of her life. Erin reconnects with members of the gang, trying to figure out how to get to Silas, and why he’s resurfaced. “Destroyer” jumps back and forth as we see the initial job derail and watch the current Erin work her way back through the gang's power structure to get to its leader.
There are two films in “Destroyer” that often feel like they're fighting with each other instead of coexisting. On the one hand, we have a bank robbery noir, a movie about bad people doing bad things, heavy on action and brutal violence. On the other hand, it's a character study about a woman who was completely destroyed at one point in her life, and has shambled to today since then. This second movie allows Kidman to shine, adding gravity to a movie that simply wouldn’t work without her, and, because of some of the frustrating narrative choices, almost doesn’t with her. Yet there’s something in Kidman’s typically-sparkling eyes, something that makes us want to see how Erin Bell’s story ends.
In a completely different register, Kidman also plays Nancy Eamons in Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, renamed Jared Eamons here. Edgerton’s well-intentioned film struggles from a problem that often befalls movies based on memoirs: we lose the self-reflective voice of the person who wrote it. Jared himself gets swallowed up by the drama, probably because we aren’t given the benefit of seeing his personal account. Too much of “Boy Erased” goes through the motions, and leaves us wanting to connect with Jared in ways the movie is unable to provide.
If you’re unfamiliar, “Boy Erased” casts a light on the horror of gay conversion therapy, a vicious, heartless cruelty still legal in almost three-quarters of the country. After a horrifying act of violence at his college, Jared (Lucas Hedges) is confronted with his sexuality by his conservative parents, including Kidman’s Nancy and his pastor father Marshall, played effectively by Russell Crowe. The Eamons shuttle Jared off to a gay conversion center called Love in Action, where he’s forced to hear about the choices he's made to live a sinful life. Allowing a window into this infuriating practice has inherent value. I was reminded several times during the film about the recent story of a nine-year-old who came out and was bullied so badly that he killed himself. That this still happens in our civilized society should make you furious, and the idea of parents subjecting their own children to psychological and even physical abuse under the banner of therapy is nauseating.
But despite the best efforts of Hedges, we don’t really get to know Jared or even the other kids at L.I.A. Edgerton seems more interested in Marshall, Nancy, and his own character Victor Sykes, the head of the center. It’s clear that Edgerton cares about this subject matter, but he expresses it by trying to understand the people who put boys like Jared in this position. That’s admirable, but it does the one thing that this movie really can’t do, erasing the boy who needed to be its center.