Film: Destroyer

If you haven’t heard the news, crime doesn’t pay. Okay, bit of a cheap shot there, but this is one of the simpler thematic thrusts of Destroyer (2018), a solid, flashbacky crime thriller that suffers slightly from the strain of a showy physical performance by Nicole Kidman. She plays Detective Erin Bell, a run-down LA cop whose scarred past is written all over her face. Bell’s history was irrevocably shaped by a long-ago undercover assignment, during which she and an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) ingratiated themselves with the criminal organization of a loose cannon named Silas (Toby Kebbell). Seventeen years later, Bell is clearly still a train wreck, but when she gets wind that Silas is resuming his criminal career, she steels herself to investigate and take care of unfinished business.

Destroyer manages to be simple and complex simultaneously. Its present-day casework is a plodding connect-the-dots man-hunt that only gains depth as the flashbacks put it into context. The result is a film that initially feels pedestrian, but improves as the mystery comes into focus. Kidman holds center stage well enough, a haunted shell with a steely backbone, but her drastic physical deterioration—from pretty young undercover agent to wan, eye-baggy mess with crooked gravestone teeth—reeks of calculated award bait. Fortunately, that’s the only real distraction from an otherwise effective story, which benefits from a nifty structural frame, a good cast (featuring Tatiana Maslany and Scoot McNairy), and an effectively realized overarching theme. This last emerges in a key scene between Kidman and a villainous Bradley Whitford, whose trademark smarminess unlocks Detective Bell’s personality, triggering her vendetta past the point of no return. It takes getting past some flashy makeup and a predictable procedural build-up, but ultimately Destroyer pays off with an effective ending.

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