Destroyer opens right into the cold eyes of Nicole Kidman. The actor has had quite the year, and she caps it off working with director Karyn Kusama in one of her most unique roles yet. The first thing you’ll notice is that Kidman has transformed for her role as an abrasive and alcoholic detective, both physically and in her persona, and this transformation is the at the heart of the movie. It’s not quite enough, though, as Destroyer has a way of assaulting the audience with its convoluted structure and irredeemable characters, and not even Kidman can help it from going off the rails.
Detective Erin Bell (Kidman) is not having a good day. Arriving late to the scene of a homicide, she takes one glance at the body, notices a gang tattoo, and already has an idea of how this investigation is going to proceed. Sixteen years earlier, she was an undercover cop. Together with another cop named Chris (Sebastian Stan), they were tasked with investigating the illegal dealings of Silas (Toby Kebbell) and his gang. In the current day, Bell is trying to catch up with Silas once again after receiving notice that he’s back in action. Using her connections as a detective, it’s a race to find Silas before he can cause more damage. Locating and stopping Silas is personal for Bell and she’ll use whatever means necessary to get the information she wants.
Running parallel to the investigation, Bell is finding it difficult to raise her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). The teenager is dating the wrong men and is getting into trouble. It’s easy to see her misbehaving to get attention from a mother too focused on her work. Apart from her struggles in solving her case, Bell must discover what kind of mother she wants to be for her daughter.
Kusama is best known for her work on Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body (which has seen critical and cultural reevaluation since its release), and The Invitation. Those last two are in the horror genre, and Destroyer is a welcome genre change. Unfortunately, this crime film plays like a mixture of Heat and Kill Bill that doesn’t earn its extended running time.
The most compelling aspect of Destroyer follows Kidman while she tries to locate Silas. One by one, she goes through all of his compatriots until she finds the man she is looking for. This leads her to meet up with all the “friends” she made while she was undercover. One man has been released from prison because of his impending death. The only way he’ll give up his information is if he gets a “favor” from Bell. Another Silas ally, DiFranco (Bradley Whitford), is laundering the money he receives from Silas while living in a mansion. None of these enemies are all that exciting and they appear for one sequence before exiting the picture.
The most exciting conflict comes when Bell’s journey leads her to Petra (Tatiana Maslany). Petra is a favorite of Silas and was an acquaintance of Bell during her time undercover. This one sequence holds the majority of the action in Destroyer as Bell follows Petra to foil a bank robbery. It’s awesome to see Kidman gear up with heavy artillery and storm the bank with fellow police officers in tow. If there was only more of that, then Destroyer might be easier to recommend.
Much of the run-time is devoted to Kidman and how she reacts to the group of characters around her. Few actors would be up to that task, but Kidman can hook our attention. There is a real sense of fatigue in her body language, almost as if she is a soul that has been living far too long. She’s a highlight in a film that has far too many random occurrences and plot lines that never line up. There are elements introduced to the story haphazardly, and character motivations are called into question plenty during the last quarter of the film.
Destroyer is a missed opportunity. Without a doubt it is a strong performance from Kidman, which is what one would expect. Everything else is lacking. The story never feels like it connects and all the supporting characters do is pad out a melodramatic crime drama. In a different movie, the story of an absent mother might be more interesting, but here it keeps the audience away from the main mystery — a mystery that ultimately never lives up to the billing. Destroyer shows that Kidman will take down her enemies, her family, and your patience.