“[Actor] as you’ve never seen him/her before” is a movie marketing cliché I’ve grown to hate, but damn if Destroyer doesn’t earn it. As burnout LAPD detective Erin Bell, Nicole Kidman looks, in a word, rough. The beautiful actress is borderline unrecognizable here, sporting the face of an “after” picture in an anti-meth PSA. Erin’s hair is brittle, her teeth are gray, and her blue eyes – her one intact feature – are sunken. Her clothes hang off what appears to be a scarecrow-thin body. It’s an amazing makeup job, is what I’m getting at, and one that never distracts from the core of the movie.
Erin, we learn, wasn’t always the nightmarish husk we’re introduced to in the movie’s opening. A series of flashbacks shows how her current appearance stems from a tragedy she suffered fifteen years ago while infiltrating a local gang with her then-partner Chris (Sebastian Stan). Now, when Erin receives a package from the gang’s former leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), she’s forced to confront her past in order to track him down.
Destroyer’s two-in-one story structure is familiar but elegant, periodically doling out backstory as Erin continues her seedy journey through the LA area, connecting the dots formed by various unpleasant characters. The events of fifteen years prior hang over the movie like a cloud; we see their aftermath in the present and feel their impending horror in the flashbacks, but the screenplay plays coy with the specifics until the harrowing climax. It’s what the entire movie is building to, and it doesn’t disappoint, but the trip there is also satisfying in its own twisted way.
The only part of the story not directly linked to the tragedy is the subplot about Erin’s disastrous relationship with her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) a teenager dating a man (Beau Knapp) ten years her senior. Erin has been a terrible mother, allowing her past trauma to turn her into a negligent parent. Now she reaps what she’s sown, desperately trying to steer Shelby off her destructive path. This might have been one storyline too many for a lesser movie, but in Destroyer it brings further emotional heft to the proceedings, showing us the far-reaching consequences of Erin’s actions.
Karyn Kusama, who directed the dynamite minimalist thriller The Invitation, brings plenty of that movie’s same strengths to Destroyer. Both revel in the art of the slow burn, gradually turning up the heat to the stories’ inevitable breaking points. But Destroyer is larger in scope, allowing Kusama to cast a wider eye on LA’s dark underbelly. The lost souls Erin encounters on her mission, most of them former members of Silas’s now-defunct gang, are all broken in some form or another. Even the one character who’s prospered in the event’s aftermath, a crooked lawyer (a wonderfully smug Bradley Whitford), is an amoral sociopath. There are no good guys in this story; at best Erin represents a dark grey morality in contrast to the blackness of Silas and others.
Though Destroyer is effective, casting a hazy, bleak atmosphere punctuated by bursts of pulse-pounding action, it’s not without its flaws. It lacks the hyper-disciplined pacing of The Invitation, especially in its third act, which drags thanks to some unnecessarily drawn-out scenes. But Kidman, present in every scene, wows even in the movie’s weakest moments. Her performance as a human train-wreck is never less than gripping, an unaffected and devastatingly sympathetic portrayal of a woman barely hanging on to life. Watching her stagger and rasp her way through the story, one could be forgiven for wishing Erin would just end it already. But she’s a woman on a mission, and that persistence makes her worth rooting for. Just barely.