Fans of rough, tough cop movies about an unstable protagonist who’s fighting off emotional demons from the past in order to work on a current case will find everything they want in “Destroyer.” But they’ll also be dealing with a non-linear, sometimes convoluted story that has no qualms about flashing backward and forward in time to show a long-ago event - an undercover bank robbery case - that went very wrong and, 16 years later, how those circumstances are still affecting the cop - played by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman - who was at its center.
Known back then as Sheriff’s Deputy Erin Bell, she’s now Los Angeles Detective Erin Bell. Presented in the flashbacks as a radiant, vibrant, eager, but still kind of green cop, she’s now a constantly tired, regularly hungover, overly depressed woman who’s lost every shred of her former glamor and positive attitude. During those in-between years, her career has flourished, but she’s gone through a bad marriage, though she’s at least still on talking terms with her ex, Ethan (Scoot McNairy), and the relationship with her now 16-year-old daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), has long ago devolved into a series or arguments and silences.
And then, the business that started everything heading off into a downward spiral - that bank robbery case - which Detective Bell had long been trying to get over, comes roaring back into her life when someone mails her a $100 bill that’s been stained purple by a dye pack, a piece of currency that was in that bank on that bad day.
It’s the beginning of a story that audiences will need to pay attention to in order to keep track of what’s going on. But that’s not really a difficult chore. Deputy Bell wore her hair long in the older story, and has it cut short in the current one. Also, the awful bags she now has under her eyes didn’t yet exist in the flashbacks. Other characters have aged even less gracefully, and some aren’t alive anymore. Still, the film is pretty much split in half, with equal time given to the two stories, and those two settings flowing in and out of each other, in a sort of dream state. The flashbacks are, indeed triggered in the head of Detective Bell almost every time she briefly closes her weary eyes, and though there are physical differences in her and different people around her, there are moments when you have to blink to make sure where you - and those characters - are in the story.
The story, with its carefully hidden secrets that eventual become revelations, is intriguing. The characters, from the charismatic, Manson-like figure named Silas (Toby Kebbell), to dedicated and (in then-sheriff’s deputy’s mind) kinda hunky cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) are fascinating. But everything in this film keeps returning to Nicole Kidman and her brave performance as an emotionally drained but resilient, daunting, and even vicious person who has become so shattered and desperate, she feels she can do anything that needs to be done because she has nothing left to lose.
All you really need to know about her situation and what’s driving her is that Silas was at the center of everything that went wrong all those years ago, and now it looks like Silas is on his way back into her life. But a warning goes along with that, one that makes it clear that this is a taut, grim movie that regularly explodes into bursts of violence. The emotional rough time that Detective Bell has endured, also spins off into some of the physical abuse that come with the territory of being a cop who’s hunting down the bad guys.
The film’s two hours may, from time to time, feel a little long, and a couple of characters, though well-acted, could have been omitted (apologies for thinking like that about the nasty fellow played by Bradley Whitford). And some startling revelations near the end tend to distract rather than make viewers say “Wow!” But from first to final frame, there’s always Kidman’s amazing performance to fall back on.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; directed by Karyn Kusama
With Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany