Nicole Kidman strips away every trace of star glamour to play Erin Bell, an LAPD detective and boozy burnout trying to close the books on the cold case that ruined her life 17 years ago. The star and director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) take no shortcuts to the dark night of this woman’s soul. Eyes red-rimmed and skin fried by the sun, this cop looks beaten. It’s easy to see why.
We first meet Erin in the present as she staggers out of her car and into a crime scene. None of the cops want to talk to this ragged loser even when she announces she knows the victim and who might have killed him. She also notices the three red-circle welts on the back of man’s neck — marks that indicate membership in the gang that she has been tracking.
Cue the flashbacks to Erin as a rookie, looking younger and less shut-down as she works undercover alongside FBI agent Chris (a stellar Sebastian Stan). The two are tasked with a dangerous sting operation, infiltrating a violent gang of bank robbers and then taking them down. Posing as experienced thieves linked by sex and drugs, Erin and Chris meet in private to work out the details of their supposed relationship. Kusama plays these scenes as a near parody of the ill-fated love stories inherent in pulp fiction. But then the duo begin to feel things for real, with Kidman and Stan creating a bond that is almost palpable.
During a bank robbery gone wrong, with purple dye exploding on the paper money to make it unusable, Chris is killed. Vowing vengeance, Erin hunts down the psychotic, sadistic leader of the gang, Silas (Toby Kebbell, skin-crawling creepiness personified), who might be back in town after all these years. The search takes the detective to the mansion of a sleazy criminal lawyer (Bradley Whitford) that ends in a brutal confrontation in the presence of his son. You’ve probably never seen a soap dish used so horrifically as a bludgeon. Later, during another robbery, Erin spots Silas’s female partner, Petra (Tatiana Maslany), and uses her to nail the master criminal. The scene in which the two women lie in wait for the monster who’s done them both wrong is a startling centerpiece.
There are times when Destroyer seems as confused as its protagonist about where it’s heading. The jumping back and forth in time can make a muddle of the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. And though cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) drenches the movie in a neo-noir aura, heightened by Theodore Shapiro’s jangly score, atmosphere is no substitute for coherence.
What ties it all together is the acting, which goes beyond the call of bang-bang duty to find the vestiges of humanity in its life-blasted characters — Maslany, an Emmy winner for Orphan Black, is particularly haunting. But this is Kidman’s show. She neatly negotiates every twist the script throws at her, even when the plot slams into too many dead ends. This is a movie star who knows how to stay the course, mo matter how twisty, tangled or down and dirty it gets. She’s dynamite.