Nicole Kidman is barely recognizable in Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” as Erin Bell, an undercover Los Angeles detective in terrible physical and psychological shape. It’s one of those performances designed not only to upend our expectations of a performer but to attract awards consideration. Sometimes that strategy works; here it really doesn’t.
Bell first appears zonked-out in her car. Emaciated, red-eyed and slovenly, she makes her way to the site of a murder. The officers already on the scene treat her like a pariah, but when she looks at the corpse, it triggers memories that send the plot along two chronological tracks, jumping from one to the other intermittently throughout.
One is set in the present, when telltale marks on the dead man’s neck and some bills tainted with colored dye tell Erin that the killer is someone from her past. That prompts a search for the perpetrator, whose identity she keeps to herself. Simultaneously she has to try connecting with her sixteen-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s heading into such trouble with a sleazy boyfriend that Bell wants her ex to take the girl away—and when that fails, tries to bribe the guy to take a hike.
The other track is set seventeen years ago, when Erin was partnering with Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a bank-robbing gang led by a nasty thug named Silas (Tobey Kebbell). They’re a phony couple, at first just pretending to be together, but as the mission goes on they become a real one.
Bank robberies engineered by Silas feature in both parts of the film. In the earlier one, it’s the heist that Erin and Chris are involved in as members of Silas’ gang. It goes awry, of course, in the worst possible way. In the later segment, she tracks down Silas’ current operation, in part by confronting a crooked lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who’s keener on using violence than divulging information, and succeeds in taking down a member of the gang (Tatiana Maslany). But her real quarry, of course, is Silas, and a confrontation is inevitable.
There’s a certain degree of fascination in watching Kidman navigate the different facets of her role; she certainly embraces the seedier aspects of the part, including the more brutal physical bits. It’s hard to reconcile her appearance here with, for example, how she looks in other current movies—“Aquaman” and “The Upside.” That’s not quite the same thing as saying she’s entirely convincing, however. She works very hard at being grubby and unattractive, as well as beaten-down and sullen, but one never feels that she truly disappears into the character; there’s always the telltale sign of effort to what she does here. Still, one has to give her credit for taking a chance.
But despite Kidman’s bravura performance, “Destroyer” intrigues without being especially compelling. While her chameleonic turn is definitely its major point of interest, moreover, there are other facets worth noting, including an against-type turn by Whitford. Kusama shows that she can get down and dirty with the most macho of directors, and her crew—production designer Kay Lee, costume designer Audrey Fisher, cinematographer Julie Kirkwood—all contribute to the seedy atmosphere. Editor Plummy Tucker keeps the chronological shifts reasonably clear, while Theodore Shapiro—a man, for a change—adds to the dark mood.