2018, R, 120 min. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Starring Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Jade Pettyjohn, Bradley Whitford, James Jordan, Toby Huss, Beau Knapp.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Jan. 11, 2019

Nicole Kidman goes slumming in Destroyer, a grimy cop drama about revenge and redemption that scratches the underbelly of Southern California with dirty fingernails. It’s contemporary film noir, albeit in ugly daylight. Upon first sight, police detective Erin Bell (Kidman) shambles down a Los Angeles service road with the gait of the living dead, her ghastly appearance – sallow complexion, sunken eyes, blood-drained lips – so shockingly un-Kidman you may not recognize her at first. Or maybe you do, and that’s the problem. Speaking in a barely audible rasp bordering on monotone, Kidman bravely submerges herself in a performance with some genuinely harrowing emotional moments, and yet the unswerving conviction she brings to the role is conspicuous. Unlike, say, Charlize Theron in Monster, it’s an ugly-duckling turn in which you always glimpse the swan.

The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is structured like a curious puzzle as it chronologically switches back and forth between Bell’s obsessive present-day effort to track down the members of a gang that committed a deadly armed bank robbery 17 years ago, and the flashbacks revealing her compromised participation in that crime as an undercover policewoman working alongside her partner and love interest, played with effortless masculinity by Stan in a fairly limited role. (He’s the movie’s eye candy.) What initially plays like an odd subplot involving Bell’s attempts to mend a strained relationship with her wild-child 16-year-old daughter (Pettyjohn) eventually finds a narrative purpose, as the tortured policewoman struggles to right the wrong she committed almost two decades ago. But Bell’s younger, shadow self is barely developed, an enigma recalled in a fuzzy backstory that fails to illuminate the character’s capability to make a bad decision that will haunt her for the rest of her days. It’s a narrative defect that throws the movie off balance, one in which the today doesn’t fully reconcile with the yesterday.

The movie relishes making the audience squirm, whenever possible. Aside from its rib-cracking and gut-punching violence, there’s an unseemly scene in which a disgusted Bell gives a hand job to a dying man in return for a critical piece of information. Perhaps the mercy wank demonstrates the extent of her resolve to find the cultlike leader of the criminal posse she’s pursuing, but it comes off as nothing less than icky. Director Kusama (Girlfight, The Invitation) has the chops to fulfill the ambitions of this undertaking, but even her savvy can’t justify the conflated, white-light ending that’s disproportionately out of whack with everything before it. As they say, whenever you draw too much attention to something, you only magnify its defects.

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Destroyer, Karyn Kusama, Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Jade Pettyjohn, Bradley Whitford, James Jordan, Toby Huss, Beau Knapp

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