Nicole Kidman is at the center of every scene in “Destroyer” and she becomes progressively more badass as it moves along. As Los Angeles detective Erin Bell, she’s broken, angry, and hellbent on revenge from the very first frame. The rest of the movie explains how she got that way, but Karyn Kusama’s fiery L.A. noir doesn’t need much backstory for Kidman’s attitude to register as genuine. For the first time since her gritty boxing drama “Girlfight” launched Michelle Rodriguez nearly 20 years ago, the filmmaker has delivered a movie propelled by the ceaseless energy of a woman wrestling to take control of her circumstances, no matter the physical toll.
Erin cuts an emaciated figure; her eyes are baggy and purpled as she squints under the desert sun and limps toward a crime scene in the opening moments. There’s no telling what she’ll do next — she’s like a punching bag that could punch back at any moment.
And she certainly does that a lot. Screenwriters Phill Hay and Matt Manfredi’s moody drama adopts the grim temperament of an old-fashioned potboiler, with Erin discovering evidence of a long-dormant crime boss Silas (Toby Kebbell) resurfacing after she encountered him long ago, while working undercover for the FBI in a gig that went very wrong. As she makes her way across town, from seedy nightclubs to dirty alleyways, Erin goes off the grid to pick up Silas’ trail while a series of flashbacks explore why she cares so much in the first place. Kusama juggles the various interlocking hardships of Erin’s life like a therapist zeroing in on the root cause of her obsession. The movie takes its time to provide a satisfying rationale, occasionally suffering from a sluggish pace and sleepy atmosphere that lessens the underlying mystery surrounding Erin’s mission, but Kidman imbues the material with continuous bite.
As an FBI agent, Erin’s assigned to infiltrate a local gang alongside fellow agent Chris (a similarly stone-faced Sebastian Stan); the pair are supposed to pretend they’re lovers, but it doesn’t take long for the role-playing to give way to the real thing. In short order, they’re hanging around the crude and reckless Silas as he plots a dangerous bank heist, spending as much time plotting their post-sting romance as they do getting the work done.
Back in modern times, Erin grapples with an estranged family, particularly her rebellious daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), who seems to have absorbed her mother’s ire and transformed it into teen angst by dating a brutish older man; Erin attempts to make her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) contain the issue, but he tosses it back to her. That leaves Erin juggling two interlocking problems at once — the man who ruined her life, and the one with the potential to ruin her daughter’s.
To that end, “Destroyer” maintains a fascinating thematic focus. Kusama doesn’t bend the rules of the genre, but the movie features a structural complexity that becomes increasingly clear, and the two-hour running time doesn’t rush along. Kidman’s such a furious engine of rage driving the story forward that she almost becomes a caricature — think Sam Spade by way of Charlize Theron in “Monster” — but this unapologetically pulpy drama benefits from her relentless ability to wrestle control of every situation, whether it’s a gunfight that goes horribly awry or an interrogation session that forces her to give a grotesque hand job to her source in exchange for quick information.
One highlight: Tossed around by the henchman for a seedy embezzler (Bradley Whitford) at his palatial home, she grabs the fancy soap dish from the bathroom and beats him into submission. Nothing keeps her down for long.
Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (“The Blackcoat’s Daughter”) draws on her previous genre credits to construct a “Chinatown”-like landscape of desert hues and shadowy nights. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this visual scheme, but it imbues the movie with a consistent tone that compliments Erin’s sleepless odyssey by planting her in an eerie zone of vacant parking lots and sidewalks where the heat seems to sizzle off the ground. In a director’s statement provided in the press notes, Kusama cites “Nightcrawler” as among the influences in play, and it would come as no great surprise to spot Jake Gyllenhaal’s psychotic stringer lurking somewhere across town.
“Destroyer” takes so much time establishing the context for Erin’s situation that many of the contemporary scenes struggle to clarify the emotional stakes, and some of the more lethargic stretches are hobbled by a sleepiness that takes for granted the appeal of the dreary aesthetic in so many potboilers that came before. Some of the clichéd dialogue holds the material back from the substance of Erin’s quest.
Nevertheless, after the peculiar dinner-party-gone-wrong thriller “The Invitation,” Kusama has delivered her most confident directing effort since “Girlfight” — returning to the motif of a woman tossed about by any number of unfortunate circumstances and still managing to wrestle control.
Kidman’s versatility is often the center of any movie in which she stars, but she hasn’t burrowed this deep into her material since “Birth,” transforming herself into such a vivid creature of discontent that it’s a wonder she doesn’t swing for these extremes more often. Her face tells the story, inhabiting a central paradox that her character voices when she declares, “I don’t care what happens to me.” Throughout “Destroyer,” Erin looks as though she’s already lost her battle and figured out a way to triumph all the same.
“Destroyer” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. Annapurna Pictures will release it this fall.