Action flameout: Nicole Kidman’s gritty performance can’t save Destroyer

In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman stars as a burned-out detective who’s spurred into action by the revival of a cold case.
ANNAPURNA Pictures In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman stars as a burned-out detective who’s spurred into action by the revival of a cold case. ANNAPURNA Pictures

Director Karyn Kusama is one of the most interesting directors working today who is not a household name. Her most well-known movies—the groundbreaking Girlfight, the misunderstood Jennifer’s Body and the underseen The Invitation—are very-different-but-terrific showcases for her as a technician. With an ability to extract exciting performances from established movie stars, and a mastery of the balance between tone and narrative, her success rate is on par with male directors who are constantly making features. She ought to be working at this level more often—so please, Hollywood, don’t take negative feedback about Destroyer as a reason not to hire Kusama. The reason the movie is watchable is because of her direction and the committed cast, who work from a script beyond repair.

Destroyer introduces us to Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman in heavy prosthetics), a detective who is burned out on her life, job, family—basically everything—when a cryptic package containing evidence from a long-cold undercover case and its connection to a murder scene tells her that her former target, Silas (Toby Kebbell), is back and possibly more dangerous than ever. Her solo investigation—done off the books and without oversight—finds her tracking down Silas’ former gang. Meanwhile, a rebellious daughter dating an older man further agitates the last person you want to cross: a killer cop with nothing to lose.

The skill and attention that went into making Destroyer compares to putting demi-glace on a Hot Pocket—it can only taste so good. Neither narrative nor atmosphere can carry the full weight of the film alone, especially when the two are not working in tandem. Atmosphere is the lifeblood of any noir or noir-adjacent genre, but it can’t make a bad story engaging. The interrogations of former gang members become redundant and tedious—save for one bank robbery scene—and while Erin’s family troubles are linked thematically to the ticking clock on her mental and physical endurance, they are a chore to endure and totally disconnected from the rest of the story.

Kidman is everything you’ve heard in the role of Erin. The normally glamorous movie star is hardened, and carries the weight of her past and the pressure of her future in her demeanor. The makeup and prosthetics can be distracting, and she appears more like an uncanny valley rendering of herself than another person entirely, but she finds a way to shine through. The supporting performances are all solid, particularly Tatiana Maslany as Petra in the film’s best sequence. Then there’s Bradley Whitford in a fine but utterly inconsequential scene.

The biggest drag on Destroyer is the villain, Silas. Again, Kebbell does what he’s able with the material, but the most we see from this supposedly unstoppable psychopath is a bad temper, a sick sense of humor, and a strange haircut. He did take something very important from Erin, so her rage is understandable, but her fear lacks motivation until some key reveals near the end (including a very fun twist).

On the whole, the film is evidence that as a director, Kusama can do a lot with very little. Destroyer may miss the mark, but in a fair world, it would be a stepping stone to her becoming a regular fixture in genre filmmaking.


Destroyer

R, 123 minutes, Violet Crown Cinema


See it again: Dr. Zhivago

PG-13, 200 minutes, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, February 10


Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000