NEW YORK: A different Nicole Kidman stares out at us under the harsh Los Angeles sun of the neonoir “Destroyer.” Kidman, who donned a prosthetic nose for “The Hours,” has here gone to greater and grittier lengths of transformation, with sunken eyes, hardened skin. Her stare is hollow. She looks dead inside.
Such metamorphoses have long been standbys of Oscar seasons past and present. The point isn’t to forget who you’re watching. It’s to impress upon you the masterful changeability of the actor beneath all the makeup and wig.
Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” presses a little too much, in both Kidman’s showy chameleonic performance and in the relentlessly grim and fragmented tale of a hard-boiled LA detective haunted by a trauma from her past. While “Destroyer” can be overwrought and mechanical, it remains an often gripping, well-crafted crime drama with distinction of its own in this (almost always male-dominated) genre.
We meet Detective Erin Bell (Kidman) as she stumbles to a crime scene, cowering from the morning sun. The other detectives, familiar with her hard-drinking apathy, don’t take her seriously. Looking over the dead body, she sees a dyed $100 bill that triggers a memory, one that for Bell never receded into the past.
She knows who did it, she says in a hoarse, rasping voice. Silas is back, she later tells a confidant.
Taking up what seems to be her first case in years, Bell embarks on a quest for Silas, a ruthless gang leader (Toby Kebbell) to whom Bell became close 16 years earlier in an undercover operation with her partner-turned-boyfriend Chris (Sebastian Stan). The job ended tragically, we can tell, but the full story will only be pieced together throughout “Destroyer,” which toggles between the two timelines.
The schematic frame of “Destroyer” is equal parts frustrating and illuminating. The flashbacks gradually explain how Bell came to be such an empty shell, estranged from her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn).
In a series of encounters across a sunbaked and sinister Los Angeles, she draws ominously closer to both Silas and her past.
It’s been a while since we’ve had an LA on-screen like this one. Gone is the rainbow-colored playground of “La La Land,” back is the underbelly in which Michael Mann so memorably trafficked.
For noir-heads, that feels good. Kusama has a muscular grip on the locale and the material, including a handful of riveting set pieces.
Those scenes and others gain something by being staged from the perspective of the film’s antihero protagonist. Bell is an unapologetically corrupt detective who thinks little of tampering with evidence or, to secure a desperately needed tip, sinking much lower. Her pursuit of Silas isn’t motivated by justice but by vengeance and soul-destroying guilt.
Kidman’s performance is rigorous and tough. It’s thrilling to see her stretch in new badass directions. Her LA detective in “Destroyer” makes for an intriguing if overly bleak descendant of the Philip Marlowes who came before her.
“Destroyer” is screening in Beirut-area cinemas.