Bravura work by Nicole Kidman is the defining feature of Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer,” but that doesn’t mean you’d want to put it on a double bill with “The Hours” or “To Die For.” Not even close.
Instead, think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” or Peter Weller in “Robocop.” Imagine a relentless, unstoppable force, able to take a licking and keep on ticking, someone who lives behind a thousand-yard stare and doesn’t even think about playing by the rules.
As written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Kusama, who debuted at Sundance nearly two decades ago with Grand Jury Prize winner “Girlfight,” “Destroyer” places Kidman’s LAPD Det. Erin Bell in a world as bleak and amoral as she is. Which is both an advantage and an obstacle.
For “Destroyer” is simultaneously impressive and stand-offish. Persuasively directed by Kusama and convincingly acted by Kidman and expert costars like Toby Kebbell and Sebastian Stan though it is, its determination to live exclusively at the darkest end of the street pays disagreeable dividends.
Even while you admire the skill that went into “Destroyer,” saying you relished time spent with its bleak and unscrupulous characters is something else.
“Destroyer’s” determination to paint it black at all costs, presumably because it reflects a criminal reality, ends up making the film less, rather than more, convincing.
The characters’ savage amorality is so pervasive that it plays not as truth but as a cold aesthetic choice, one that keeps us at arm’s length rather than drawing us in.
Still, the film’s drawbacks notwithstanding, Kidman is never less than imposing as the burned-out Bell, a part zombie, part detective individual who is more of a wreck than Wreck-It Ralph.
Though expert makeup by Oscar winner Bill Corso inevitably plays a part, Kidman’s transformation goes deeper, into walking and even holding herself in a way that is as convincing as it is different.
Set in present day Los Angeles and making excellent use of off-the-radar locations, “Destroyer” begins with Bell opening some truly bleary eyes early one morning from the front seat of the squad car she’s spent the night in.
Bell doesn’t live in her car, though she looks as if she might. There’s a crime scene in front of her, and although her fellow officers are not happy to see her, she takes a look at the corpse and notices some high value currency marked by dye, a remnant of the kind of dye packs banks use to discourage robberies.
Next we cut to an L.A. police station where Bell opens a letter addressed to her. Inside is a dye-pack bill identical to the one at the crime scene.
Bell checks with an FBI agent she’s worked with to be sure, but she already knows what that bill means. Silas, a criminal from her past, is back, and there is nothing, no matter how immoral or sleazy, she won’t do to make sure he doesn’t disappear again.
Though it can be too clever for its own good, “Destroyer” does get credit for a plot that is complex and unexpected, and at this point, the story begins to go back and forth between the present and an episode 17 years earlier that haunts Bell and for all intents and purposes ruined her life.
At that time, Bell (also played by Kidman) and her partner Chris (Stan) were young crime fighters posing as criminals and attempting to infiltrate a gang based in the California desert.
Leading the gang was Silas (an effective Kebbell), a kind of a minor league Charlie Manson, a twisted sort who financed his lifestyle with girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) by robbing banks.
That undercover operation didn’t work out the way anyone planned and, making the resulting chaos worse, Silas disappeared before he could be arrested, vanishing totally from view. Until now.
Aside from flashing back to the past, “Destroyer” is largely concerned with the relentless private vendetta Bell embarks on, tracking down a number of Silas’ former associates (Bradley Whitford, James Jordan, Zach Villa), determined to get close to closure no matter what it takes.
Adding yet another complication to her life, Bell has a 16-year-old daughter named Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who is acting out in a way exactly calculated to drive someone like her mother crazy.
Watching Bell inexorably pulling on the thread of those long-ago connections has classic thriller appeal, but dealing nonstop with toxic individuals and their catastrophic life choices is not inevitably a thrill. Even Kidman’s exceptional transformation can’t change that.
Rated: R, for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 25, ArcLight Hollywood