With Nicole Kidman, in ‘Destroyer,’ desperation is skin deep
Neither dense, distracting makeup nor confused, convoluted chronology can disguise the fact that Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer,” scripted by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, is a mediocre mash-up of genre clichés. Quite a letdown after the team’s previous collaboration, the twisted and underrated “The Invitation” (2015).
Though being rendered unrecognizable is often a key to Oscar success (witness Golden Globe best actor winner and Academy Award favorite Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, in “Vice”), for Nicole Kidman it only emphasizes the artificiality of her role and performance. As LAPD detective Erin Bell she wakes up in a car parked under an overpass, her face a battered, bloated mask, her red eyes sunken in blackened sockets, and the first thing you think is — wow, it must have taken hours to apply all that. Compared to similarly ravaged lost souls played by Tilda Swinton, in “Julia” (2008), or Jane Fonda, in “The Morning After” (1986), Kidman’s desperation seems skin-deep.
Stumbling from her car to a nearby murder scene, Bell draws groans from the detectives already gathered there. “Dragging an anchor?” says one. She sniffs at their contempt, and mysteriously says she might know who committed the crime.
Thus begins a flurry of flashbacks that relate what happened 17 years earlier that lay Bell so low. As a rookie cop, she had gone undercover in an FBI operation to bust a gang of bank robbers headed by the evil Silas (Toby Kebbell), a third-rate Charles Manson. She falls in love with her partner in the case, Chris (Sebastian Stan), a complication that disrupts the operation. A heist goes awry, and innocent people die. She feels responsible and, stricken with guilt, goes on a permanent bender (just one of many implausibilities in the film is how she manages to keep her job despite being a flagrant alcoholic). But when it seems that Silas has reappeared and resumed his wicked ways, she decides to do whatever it takes to make things right, even if it involves kidnapping, torture, or giving manual satisfaction to a witness in exchange for information.
Her quest for redemption includes trying to prevent her estranged, bratty 16-year-old daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s besotted by a much older creep, from ruining her life. Their interludes are more inert than illuminating, a family-values break from Bell’s hard-boiled hunt for former gang members and clues to the whereabouts of Silas. She beats people up, people beat her up, she vomits, groans, and sighs wearily. Weighed down by makeup as much as by remorse, despair, and resignation, she stumbles her way through the film’s narrative convolutions to a denouement that is unexpected mostly because it makes no sense.
Directed by Karyn Kusama . Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi . Starring Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Sebastian Stan , and Jade Pettyjohn . At Boston Common, Kendall Square, and Coolidge Corner . 123 min. R (language throughout, violence, some sexual content, brief drug use).