One cannot watch “Destroyer” without admiring Nicole Kidman, who adds this dark crime drama to a long career of fascinating, often nervily risk-taking career choices in which she submerges her lithe grace and porcelain beauty to inhabit the toughest characters and stories.
If only we could feel such esteem for the rest of the movie.
Kidman assumes a startlingly cadaverous pallor to play a washed-up Los Angeles detective, an exercise in actorly transformation, joyless determination and uncompromising tone.
But that is counterbalanced by a sense that this procedural whodunit set in the city’s seediest precincts and desolate outer reaches can’t leave grim enough alone. This is a movie obviously impressed with its pulpiest affectations — including outrageous violence, cynical sexuality, promiscuous criminality and an overarching sense of hopelessness. It seems not to know when to stop, continually going a little too far for its own good.
From the outset, the more-is-more ethic is evident — and unnecessarily distracting — in Kidman’s makeup job: As Erin Bell, a barely functioning alcoholic, Kidman has been given her most astonishing makeover since her Virginia Woolf nose in “The Hours.” Her skin is waxy and greenish, her eyes sunken in bruised shadows, her hair frizzled into an indecipherable shag.
The movie was directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the same trio behind the 2016 horror-thriller “The Invitation.” Critics respected that film — or, at least, parts of it — but it never caught on with viewers. This seems headed for the same fate.
As the story opens, Erin wakes up — presumably after yet another bender — in her car under a bleak underpass. A murder victim has been discovered nearby, and when she wanders over to join the investigation, she recognizes the corpse.
Thus begins an enigmatic, often savagely punishing journey through Southern California’s crime world and Erin’s own memory. The narrative toggles between her troublingly dysfunctional present (addiction, isolation, a teenage daughter going perilously off the rails) and a slightly less despairing past, when her life might not have taken such a self-destructive turn. Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany and Toby Kebbell deliver assured, occasionally terrifying performances as figures from that time in Erin’s life; Maslany in particular shows up for a memorably scathing action sequence.
This plunge into the corruption and class stratifications of modern-day L.A. plays like the desiccated, far-more-pessimistic cousin of “Widows,” which addresses similarly dark corners of Chicago. But as vigorous and go-for-broke as Kusama is, and as exhilarating as it can be to watch Kidman collaborate so fearlessly with a filmmaker of such pitiless vision, the movie collapses under its own lugubrious weight.
Erin’s journey feels like it’s supposed to be a moral reckoning, but it has all the depth of a simple — and simplistic — revenge tale. Once the audience figures out the “who” of the “dunit,” which they’re likely to early on, the movie turns into a ravaging, repetitive slog of one hard-boiled set piece after another.
Filmed in her harshest light at her most unforgiving angles, Kidman does her best to invest Erin with layers, despite the bloodshot, zombielike makeup and prosthetics that threaten to overwhelm her carefully tuned performance. In the end, even the ferocity of her avenging angel — as tarnished as she is righteous — can’t save “Destroyer” from its own sour excesses.
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for profanity, violence, sexual content and brief drug use.