The payoff comes midway through “Destroyer,” the big moment when all the street cred that Nicole Kidman has been building up with her worn, raw, nose-busted appearance in scene after scene.
She’s a deep undercover cop ready to storm into a bank that’s being robbed, taking out a gang she infiltrated and hellbent on taking down its charismatic leader (Toby Kebbell). Two cops emerge from a patrol car and take up positions.
“Let’s go,” Det. Erin Bell growls.
“You’re not gonna wait for BACKUP?”
“This is a f—–g GUNFIGHT!”
Director Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight”) stages a decent shootout, even if she is no Michael Mann, Walter Hill, Kathryn Bigelow or Antoine Fuqua. But what she was going for here was a violent tone poem sketched in shades of addiction, guilt, grief, revenge and responsibility. The screenwriters and the director herself, with her addiction to closeups of her star, get in their own way and keep that tone poem from coming off.
The screenplay takes us back and forth in time, to events eighteen years before, when Erin was a young cop who had fallen in love with the partner (Sebastian Stan) who was with her as they crossed ethical lines to cozy up to Silas and his murderous gang.
Something went sideways. People died. Loot was stashed. And now, all these years later, with a daughter she’s barely raised (Jade Pettyjohn) who is making her first Big Mistake about a man, and colleagues who give her too long a leash mainly because they don’t want to be around her, Erin is strung-out, drunk a lot of the time and looking for one last chance at redemption.
“If you come back , I’ll kill you. It’ll be easy. Because I don’t care what happens to me.”
But whatever Kusama was going for, in delivering her Oscar winning star, one of the great pale screen beauties of our time, in splotchy, mottled brown-toothed closeups, she all but ensured all anybody would talk about here is Kidman’s “transformation,” her “courage” in playing somebody with Erin’s hard highway miles showing in every wrinkle, every dingy gray hair, every freckle or age spot (look at her hands) the camera captures.
Flipping back and forth in time, we can see the young undercover cop and the digital kiss of youth Kidman wears in her scenes with her partner — conspiring, planning, reacting to the violence that they’re unable to prevent, “getting their stories straight” to cover up what they knew and when they knew it.
Kusama’s film has hints of the Jason Patric/Jennifer Jason Leigh-Lili Fini Zanuck drug thriller “Rush” in it, of William Friedkin’s cops making too many compromises, endangering too many innocents to catch the villain in “To Live and Die in LA.” .
But the Phil Hay/Matt Manfredi script is so caught up in trickiness — confusing time shifts, long, bland whispered stretches between the action beats — that “Destroyer” fritters away any chance it has at suspense, any forward motion the narrative might have achieved.
Erin is hunting a “Destroyer,” and its obvious she has become one herself — pitiless, beyond the law. Her capture of a female bank robber — played by Tatiana Maslany — with whom she has history has the film’s roughest violence and grittiest moments. And yet Erin is not utterly blind to the damage she’s passed on to others, even her daughter.
Focusing so narrowly on her lead character allows Kusuma to get this point across. But zeroing in on the transformation her leading lady makes becomes a distraction.
And when all anybody is talking about is how rough Kidman “looks” in the movie, it’s no wonder audiences have ignored it, and no great surprise that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences “snubbed” her and it. It’s a star vehicle, awards bait and a showcase thriller that barely holds your interest as you wait through the whispers and “She looks TERRIBLE” closeups for something exciting or moving to happen.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss, Bradley Whitford and Jade Pettyjohn
Credits: Directed by Karyn Kusama, script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. An Annapurna release.
Running time: 2:01