The premise of a guilt-ridden cop boozing his way through life until he can settle one last debt and go out in a blaze of glory doesn’t scream “original.” And Karyn Kusama’s version of this American tale, “Destroyer,” written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, doesn’t stray too far from the tired tropes, except for the fact that the “he” is now a “she,” played by Nicole Kidman donning distractingly layered makeup and a wig that’s just trying too damned hard.
But despite the film’s needlessly fractured structure and a relentlessly grim story, Kidman and Kusama seem to be speaking the same language, in quieter moments illuminating not just the faults of the protagonist but also the faults of every tragic hard-boiled detective in cinematic history.
Detective Erin Bell (Kidman) can’t catch a break. She’s an authority figure lacking authority, a barely-living joke to colleagues and perps alike. She walks like a drunk in lead boots, face flowered with broken capillaries. Erin’s quickly dragged back to her past when an inked-up $100 bill shows up in her mail — a calling card from an old friend with some unsettled business.
Throughout the narrative, Erin’s history drips out in obtuse flashbacks, the kind of puzzle-piecing story that’s supposed to become a mystery, but which ends up instead as a frustrating mess of information that needn’t be withheld. What’s most successful in this film is its character studies, not its plot.
Kidman as Erin becomes a beat-up-clown punching bag for everyone she meets. For all the gravitas of her gravelly voice, it doesn’t fool those who know her best, particularly the bank-robbing gang she and her old partner-boyfriend Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated way back. On her quest to track down ruthless gang leader Silas (Toby Kebbell), she reconnects with them one by one, with each shocked by her haggard appearance. But her meeting with the first man, Toby (James Jordan, “Wind River”), sets the tone for how things will go from here on out.
Toby’s got a month to live, but he’s content to let whatever info he’s got on Silas go with him to the grave unless Erin gives him a hand job. Erin dutifully performs it; what’s one more insult when you’re already a reanimated corpse? And yet, he asks for more: “Unbutton your shirt.” “Spit on it.” Erin’s compliance is a grumbled eye roll, and Kidman finds a blunt, anti-sentimental tone for her character in those moments that’s effectively numb. In another encounter with a person from the past, Erin’s literally pointing a gun at old pal Petra (Tatiana Maslany), and yet Petra has so little respect for or fear of Erin that she still punches Erin and fights her tooth and nail.
What sets Erin Bell apart from her male-detective cinematic counterparts is that she is utterly humorless, which is somehow both a misstep and a revelation in this film. Women in supporting roles in action or crime films rarely get a laugh line or a personality, and Kidman as a lead doesn’t buck that trend; Erin’s no clever Philip Marlowe. She’s instead an open, oozing wound, leaving her filth on anything and anyone she touches. Realistically, a human who’s been through the traumas of Erin’s life would react this way, which feels like an admonishment to the movies that have attempted to gloss over a character’s tragedy with jokes. And yet — I yearned for just an inkling of any humor.
Along the way in Erin’s journey back in time, Erin’s teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn, Nickelodeon’s “School of Rock”) tests her patience by marauding with her much-older boyfriend in dive bars and tauntingly kissing the man to further irk her mother. This is the most ludicrous element of the story; men writing rebellious teen girls rarely reveal any actual truths and often resort to the tired clichés of slutty girls disobeying mom and dad for the attention.
Along with Kidman’s performance, one of the more genuine elements of the film is its setting, a contemporary, perpetually sunny and dusty Los Angeles. Here, the sun seems equally menacing and tantalizing, either a beckoning to death or a sweet release, and Kusama and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”) artfully manipulate whether the natural light burns or soothes in each individual scene. This is a Los Angeles where Beverly Hills and the ocean don’t exist. All that exists are empty cemented basins where water and life should be flowing but aren’t.
To finish, it’s impossible to talk about “Destroyer” without talking about Kidman’s makeup and hair. It’s obvious the makeup team is going for “knocking on death’s door,” but the transformation is nearly comical, especially when we see in flashbacks that Erin was as buoyantly beautiful as Kidman in real life, with a stylishly timeless haircut just 15 years earlier.
Yes, a person may suffer from cirrhosis, but that liver disease doesn’t suddenly give them a Cathy-from-the-mall haircut. It’s a small but distracting thing when Kidman’s face is front and center on the screen for almost the entire duration of the film.
Kusama and team should have trusted that Kidman could make Erin’s health and wellness evident from her physical performance, which is rickety and slouchy in all the best ways.