Nothing Nicole Kidman has done in her career can prepare you for “Destroyer” — to the extent it’s easy to imagine someone wandering/tuning in to the film and watching for several minutes before realizing that the sunburnt piece of beef jerky up on screen is none other than the alabaster beauty from “BMX Bandits” and “Far and Away.” And that’s just the surface. “Destroyer” may as well be called “Nasty Woman: The Movie,” so committed is it to the idea of presenting a Don Siegel-style anti-hero who’s dirtier than Harry, deadlier than “The Killers.”
Going from fresh-faced FBI cadet to what looks like a roadie for the Rolling Stones, this is a transformation on par with Charlize Theron in “Monster” — not just in appearance, but in terms of her entire persona: the way her eyes move, like those of a skittish animal scanning the horizon for some unseen predator; the way she walks, dragging her feet, swaying under the influence; the way she holds a gun, like another one of the guys, or a character in a Michael Mann movie. Kidman has always been a chameleon, but in this case, she doesn’t merely change her color (or don a fake nose, à la “The Hours”); she disappears into an entirely new skin, rearranging her insides to fit the character’s tough hide.
The character is Erin Bell, a damaged-goods detective who suffered a nervous breakdown after a long undercover sting operation went off the rails. Picture Jodie Foster if Buffalo Bill had somehow gotten away with it in “The Silence of the Lambs,” haunted by the death of a partner and everything she could have done to save his life. This is the kind of psychic damage Brad Pitt’s left with after finding Gwyneth’s head in a box at the end of “Seven.” And yet, Erin is the closest thing this movie offers to a hero. You don’t go in expecting a happy ending from a movie that serves up such an unhappy everything-that-came-before.
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“Destroyer” is “Girlfight” director Karyn Kusama’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” It’s a blunt, deeply cynical look at the idea of justice in a place like Los Angeles, where criminals burrow away like termites into the hidden cracks of the city, and where what passes for the law is corrupt beyond redemption. Drunk, disheveled, and all but unresponsive to her partner and superiors, Erin still has a job, but barely. She shows up at a murder scene looking like she’s just slept in her car (the actual explanation is more complicated, and will take nearly two hours to unravel). One can tell from the other officers’ faces what they think of her: They may as well be holding their noses, talking to her like her squalor could be contagious.
Erin whispers something about a man named Silas, who might as well be a serial killer, for all we know. Silas is clearly someone significant from her past, someone extremely dangerous whom she plans to bring to justice without bothering to involve her colleagues (until a spectacular shootout near the end). But in the long and somewhat garbled lead-up to that, audiences lean in as two separate mysteries unspool: First, there’s the question of what went wrong that transformed Erin into such a run-down wreck — the chicken-fried shadow of her former self. And then there’s the matter of how far she will go to stop Silas, who may as well be the Charlie Manson of bank robbers (played by Toby Kebbell).
The first thing Kusama shows of Kidman is her red-rimmed eyes, all but unrecognizable amid the alcohol-swollen lids, dark freckles, and rude bump atop what looks like a broken nose that was never set properly. Erin looks like she’s lost the will to live, which is pretty much the way she’s drifted through the last 17 years. That’s how long it’s been since she lost her undercover partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan). They’d been ordered to play a couple in order to infiltrate Silas’ renegade gang, but somewhere along the way wound up becoming one for real — and then he died, leaving her with an irreconcilable sense of guilt. For her, catching Silas is the only way she could possibly atone, although she also has her 16-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) to think of.
Somewhat clunkily scripted by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who’ve created a great character, and a confusing narrative), the gritty, thoroughly unconventional thriller plays some wicked tricks with time, which serve to deliberately mislead audiences as to the sequence of events — which is odd, since it would’ve almost made more sense to open with an epic set-piece, rather than somewhat anticlimactically circling back to the opening scene. Through the power of makeup (overseen by “Deadpool” prosthetics designer Bill Corso) and the more invisible magic of Lola Visual Effects (the go-to shop for “digital botox”), not just Kidman but the entire cast undergo remarkable transformations before and after the botched bank robbery that changed all of their fates.
Kusama withholds that heist until nearly the end of the movie, but we can guess how it turned out, since Chris is gone, money left at the scene is stained purple by the dye packs, and Erin now looks the way she does. Seldom has a film succeeded in depicting the way a traumatic experience can turn cancerous like this, eating away at a young woman’s beauty, leaving only the dessicated husk of who she was before — and the distinct impression that she’s been punishing herself all this time, like one of those self-flagellating monks who whips himself nightly. The effect is staggering, especially considering the great lengths to which Kidman has gone to hide her wrinkles from her fans in the past.
Here, she looks almost Clint Eastwood-like, squinting through crow’s feet, marked by years of sun damage, and the comparison seems apt, since only men are typically allowed to play such tough, morally complicated characters — just as only men get to direct such scripts. But as helmers go, Kusama has consistently delivered the kind of intense thrillers that people typically associate with testosterone, nearly all of them starring women. “Destroyer” therefore obliterates the idea that it takes balls to make a movie like this. Daring, yes. But Kusama has something far more important: vision (not to mention a formidable accomplice in Kidman). And even though the film unravels a bit toward the end, it destroys the standard confines of what an actress can do on-screen, allowing her to be difficult, unlikable, and almost completely independent.