LAPD Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) discovers a link to her past is back in town. Years ago, she infiltrated a gang, which ended badly and forever altered her life. A broken woman, she engages in a cat-and-mouse game of revenge on the city’s gritty streets.
“Destroyer” is as raw as raw gets in this violent modern mystery.
Erin is an alcoholic attempting to chase her demons away with cleansing liquor. Looking as if she has awakened on the wrong side of life, she staggers and mumbles her way through each relentless day.
However, when the leader of the gang in which she was placed undercover is released from prison, she is forced to investigate the old gang.
Through a somewhat disjointed story utilizing flashbacks, Bell’s journey through hell is revealed in its unvarnished beauty. Each gang member she locates reveals another facet of the case, about gang leader Silas and of Bell as the truth behind her past is slowly revealed.
If a film can be too intense or fervent, this is it. Kidman’s Erin Bell is death-warmed-over. Her raspy voice is raw from lack of care, and too much drink. Bell is so striking in her appearance and persona that it becomes distracting. However, as we witness her time undercover, it fails to create a life-altering scar that would totally destroy the next decade plus for a tough cop. In fact, her current encounters with the investigation are much more harrowing than those of her past.
Kidman’s performance is top-notch. Her Erin Bell is alarmingly cooked down to a bone-chilling cadaver-like character who is totally “destroyed.” The rest of the cast also gives strong performances, notably Jade Pettyjohn and Sebastian Stan.
In addition, moments of this film are absolute gems. Bell’s encounters with her angry, rebellious daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) are enthralling – especially the diner scene. And the ending twist is a memorable surprise but is not enough to shore up a rocky film.
“Destroyer” is a difficult film to watch as a shattered soul struggles to locate a life so far gone that the only path available is a hopeless one toward darkness.
In her fiercest performance to date, Nicole Kidman shifts between two timelines to give us an eye-opening before-and-after portrait of a steely but hollow detective.
Sixteen years earlier, determined Erin Bell infiltrated a gang with co-worker Chris (a swell Sebastian Stan, low-key, assured) and they fell in love. No happy ending for the pair, as we will learn in due time.
Cut to present day, and she’s dissolved into a shell of a human being – sunken eyes, unhealthy body, and racked with guilt, she has a surly, sorrowful, don’t-give-a-damn demeanor.
Divorced and estranged from her daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), Bell is desperate for redemption when she discovers the amoral gang leader (Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced and is taunting her from the shadows.
Hell-bent and with laser focus for vengeance, Bell goes rogue to hunt him down, and these violent scenes crackle with energy and mystery.
Director Karyn Kusama, a St. Louis native, has a keen eye, impressively capturing seedy streets in L.A. It’s the antithesis of “La La Land,” like “Florida Project” was to Disney World. Her set piece selection is one of the film’s highlights.
The complex plot of “Destroyer,” because of the flashback device, gets tangled at times. And the details bog down the pacing, but it’s still gripping.
Written by Kusama’s husband Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, it invites comparisons to Michael Mann’s early work and such ‘80s chestnuts as Sidney Lumet’s “The Morning After” and William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” (Cue Wang Chung).
Nevertheless, Kidman is riveting, and an all-in cast of supporting players helps the realism. The way she wrestles with her demons is affecting – that’s why she is in contention for year-end awards.
We’ve seen many a similar police crime story before, but never with such a tough girl’s resolve and urgency.