There’s a good chance you won’t recognize her. Not at first. With a nose that looks as though it was once broken and didn’t properly heal, her sunken eyes, dark and cloudy, and her freckled skin, pale, unhealthy, Nicole Kidman is LAPD detective Erin Bell, a burnout; a shell of her former self.
In director Karyn Kusama’s unrelenting mystery thriller Destroyer, detective Bell stumbles out of her car and drags her weary self as if hauling anchor towards the scene of a crime. There’s a dead body, a male, lying face down by the side of a river. Bell crouches to take a closer look. The detectives already on sight have no ID on the victim, though the three black tattooed dots on the back of his neck suggests something gang related. There are also $100 dollar bills covered in purple dye scattered around, presumably what’s left of a bank robbery that went wrong.
The cops remind Bell she has no jurisdiction at the crime scene and that she should just go home. Get some rest. But the woman’s not listening. She doesn’t care. She stands up, walks by them, gives the cops the finger, then drags herself back to her car.
Clearly, Bell is on a mission. Having just received a package on her desk back at the station that contains a purple-dyed $100 bill, similar to the ones seen by that body by the river, Bell knows what’s going on. “Silas is back,” she growls in a low, gravel pit of a worn out voice. Who Silas is and why he’s back is the center of the film. We don’t know why Bell is going rogue or why she’s working with a such a determined, single focus at the cost of everything else around her, but we will.
Destroyer is a story told on two levels running parallel. One takes place present-day with Bell doing whatever is needed, whatever it takes to find out where this Silas (a truly menacing Toby Kebbell) is. The other is told in a series of flashbacks, events that took place sixteen years ago when she and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) worked undercover, infiltrating a dangerous California gang. Like the pieces of a puzzle, with each scene something new is discovered, things that slowly reveal what happened back then, what went wrong with the assignment, and what it was that made detective Erin Bell the cynical, depressed, and disillusioned wreck she became.
There are things we can piece together before they occur. It’s not that writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have made anything predictable – as we’ll discover, there are moments that intentionally throw our guesswork completely off course – it’s just that certain assumptions can be made from logic. Her partner Chris has no part of anything happening in the present-day sequences leading us to anticipate that at some point in those flashbacks we’ll see what was his fate. Those dollar bills with the purple dye we saw at the film’s opening have to be part of a robbery scene, one it’s safe to guess we’ll eventually witness. Plus, Bell is having problems with her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who just happens to be sixteen. Whatever happened to Bell back then continues to live with the detective today. In some way, her troublesome daughter has to be a constant reminder of an event that went wrong. Finding this Silas isn’t going to be a simple act of revenge, for Bell it’ll be a form of exorcism.
Though most of the film is a grim, slow-burn drama with Bell following lead after lead as she gets closer to finding Silas, there are unexpected moments of explosive action, including an exceptionally tense and well directed present-day gun battle between the police and some bank robbers. Tatiana Maslany, best known for the multiple roles she played in BBC America’s Orphan Black, is terrific as Petra, a gang member Bell recalls from her undercover work sixteen years ago. It’s when Bell is tailing Petra with the intention of questioning her, hoping for a lead, that the detective suddenly finds she’s witness to a bank robbery and needs immediate backup.
Eventually, the film will circle back to that opening scene with the dead body by the river, and when it happens, the final piece of the puzzle slots into place. But instead of feeling satisfied, you’re suddenly left with the notion you’ve been tricked. There’s a tease in the narrative and its timeline that’s not quite as clever as the film wants you to believe it is. Neither is the film as profound as the intensely slow conclusion with the building Theodore Shapiro score wants to suggest.
It’s clear that Destroyer is a showcase for the talented Nicole Kidman. It’s the kind of performance that can’t help remind you of Charlize Theron when she all but disappeared into Aileen Wuornos in the 2004 drama Monster. But unlike Theron, here Kidman never quite persuades. She’s fine in the sixteen-year-old flashbacks but not in the present-day sequences as the burnout with the low growl. She’s acting but she doesn’t convince. She’s miscast.
MPAA rating: NR Length: 123 Minutes