Nicole Kidman delivers another searing, persona-busting performance in the crime drama “Destroyer,” but her work is a step above the garden-variety story it services.
When we first see Kidman’s Erin Bell, she’s in bad shape. Battered, possibly hung over or maybe still drunk, the L.A. County Sheriff’s detective shuffles unsteadily to a crime scene being processed. A homicide victim, shot multiple times, lies in the road, a few dye-stained $100 bills near the body. Bell tells the detectives working the case that she knows who did it, but they don’t believe her.
In the next scene, Bell goes to her desk at the sheriff’s office, and there’s a piece of mail waiting. Inside the envelope is a dye-stained $100 bill. She instantly knows the message behind this cryptic delivery: Silas is back.
Bell slips out, avoiding her partner (Shamier Anderson), for some off-the-books detective work, as she starts asking old criminal acquaintances where Silas is. They never know, but they know somebody who does — which leads Bell through a rogue’s gallery that includes a sleazy lawyer (Bradley Whitford) and Silas’ crazed girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany).
At each step, director Karyn Kusama (“The Invitation”) flashes back to Bell’s past. As a young L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy, Bell was recruited to go undercover with Chris (Sebastian Stan), an FBI informant, to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers led by the charismatic, manipulative and deadly dangerous Silas (Toby Kebbell).
Meanwhile in the present, Bell also is dealing with a family crisis: Her estranged teen daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who had been living with Bell’s ex (Scoot McNairy), is taking up with a sleazy older guy (Beau Knapp).
The script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, teases out its information like bait on a fishhook, reeling us in with every revelation. It’s only in the aftermath that one realizes there’s not a lot of there there, that the story is a barebones string of encounters without much to flesh them out.
Kusama and Kidman collaborate to make the most of what the script provides. Kusama digs into the dingy atmosphere that Bell’s criminal contacts inhabit. And Kidman, nearly recognizable as the world-weary detective, puts in a masterful performance of regret, revenge and redemption.
Opened December 25 in select cities; opens Friday, February 1, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use. Running time: 121 minutes.