Will any review of Destroyer begin without mentioning exactly what it does to Nicole Kidman’s movie-star face? And does inciting that kind of conversation really serve the story?
It’s hard to gauge where the stunt makeunder — hollowed-out eyes, mottled skin, tombstone teeth — ends and the performance begins in director Karyn Kusama’s bleak arthouse drama, a solid-enough L.A. noir whose hook, and albatross, is the transformation of a beautiful Oscar-winning actress into a desiccated crone.
Kidman stars as Detective Erin Bell, a veteran Los Angeles cop who looks like she’s been sleeping either in her car or at the bottom of a bottle since Jack Daniels was invented. As the film opens, she’s elbowing her way into the investigation of a body found down by the water basin, riddled with bullets and marked by a distinctive neck tattoo.
Almost everyone Erin comes up against recoils, or politely turns away: perps, coworkers, even her estranged teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn). Only an old friend, some kind of supervisor, seems concerned enough to invite her to his weekly Bible study.
But as we soon learn in flashbacks, she used to be lovely: an undercover cop with coltish legs and lush brown hair working a case that involved disappearing into a gang of Sons of Anarchy-style criminals led by the malevolent Silas (British actor Toby Kebbel, in a weird Gene Simmons wig). Her partner in all this — for cover, and then for real — is fellow officer Chris (Sebastian Stan); their mission is not entirely clear, until a bank-robbery plan starts to come together.
The action toggles between past and present, collecting shady underworld archetypes as it goes: Tatiana Maslany as Petra, the poor little rich girl turned modern gangster moll; a pleasingly nasty Bradley Whitford as a ruthless Malibu master-of-the-universe type; Beau Knapp as the worst boyfriend in the world.
Kidman, to her credit, goes all in, but it’s hard to ignore the neon sign over her head that keeps flashing “See? I’m Acting!” Kusama (2015’s eerie The Invitation and 2000’s excellent Girlfight) has crafted a neat little puzzlebox mystery around the screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, but nothing about the narrative really feels crucial or new. Instead it’s essentially a decent late-night premium-cable thriller, dressed up in top-shelf talent and too many broken capillaries. B-