By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Destroyer” sounds like an old Steven Seagal movie or a new Marvel villain.
It’s neither. Rather, this is a totally unexpected picture, a kind of sunbaked film noir, starring a remarkable Nicole Kidman as an LAPD cop at the very end of her tether.
Nearly unrecognizable, Kidman is introduced in the first frame in a punishing close-up. Her hair, dyed a dark brunette, is tangled and filthy, her eyes are red-rimmed and world-weary. Detective Erin Bell has clearly been rode hard and put up wet. At least twice.
Getting out of her car, which is as beat up as she is, she strides over to a crime scene in progress. The cops already looking at the corpse visibly sigh as she approaches, as if they can smell her hangover. Why don’t you go sleep it off, they suggest. We got this covered.
To which Erin mutters before walking back to her car, what if I know who did this?
She does. And how she knows and exactly who pulled the trigger makes up the rest of this difficult and ultimately mesmerizing movie.
“Destroyer” time-jumps among the present, the recent past and 17 years earlier, when Erin and another cop, Chris (Sebastian Stan), went undercover as a supposed romantic couple to flush out a vicious bank robber named Silas (Toby Kebbell). As “Destroyer” begins, he has resurfaced, sending her a not-very-nice (or subtle) calling card: an envelope of dye-tinged $100 bills. It’s both a reference to their shared past and a kind of ugly dare.
Erin’s only choice is to work her way back through the gang’s former members in hopes that will lead her to Silas. They are a motley and memorable lot, including a preening lawyer who thinks he’s got everything under control, and a lowlife on his deathbed who demands Erin give him a hand job in exchange for information.
“Destroyer” is gritty and smart and admittedly hard to follow. It’s one of those see-it-twice movies that’s more satisfying the second time around because you aren’t trying so hard to keep up with the movie’s complex who-did-what-when structure.
But it’s a uniquely rewarding film, expertly directed by Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight”) and beautifully acted by Kidman. Her work goes far beyond the famously altered nose which helped her win an Oscar for “The Hours” Rather, this is a deeply lived-in portrayal, as dirty, in its way, as anything Dirty Harry ever pulled.
And Kidman goes a step further, showing us Erin as she was years earlier, hopeful and fresh, still a true believer in the triumph of truth, justice and true romance.
Drenched in melancholy, cynicism and rage, “Destroyer” is the story of a lost cause, of a dead woman walking, if you will. In its way it’s a kind of #MeToo moment. We’ve seen guys play this role. Turns out women would like their shot, too.