Thursday, January 17, 2019

Nicole Kidman as a ravaged LA cop

Grim and downbeat, Destroyer is gritty, but to what end?.

In Destroyer, a low-down crime thriller directed by Karyn Kusama, Nicole Kidman's ravaged face almost becomes the movie's subject. When I first saw photos of Kidman as she appears in Destroyer, I found it impossible not to wonder whether she wasn't intent on desecrating her own delicate beauty, something along the lines of what Charlize Theron did in movies such as Monster.

Don't get me wrong, Kidman is a very good actress and, in Destroyer, she dares to take a harrowing journey through a noir hell, paving the road with heavy blocks of guilt, recrimination, and alcohol-induced decay.

Kusama scrambles the story's time sequence as she shows us how Kidman's Erin Bell, an LAPD detective, arrived at such a grim destination.

The approach allows Kusama to introduce a good deal of traditional thriller elements. We meet the cop (Sebastian Stan) with whom Erin goes undercover, setting up the event that drives the plot. We also meet some of the felons with whom the two cops associate, a gallery of thieves, sadists, and enablers led by Silas (Toby Kebbell), a long-haired, thick-lipped psychopath.

Another theme that ripples through the sleaze involves Erin's teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), a 16-year-old who has stopped attending school and who has taken up with a defiant older thug. Erin's ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) doesn't know how to handle the rebellious, obviously self-destructive teen.

The movie opens with the discovery of a body and proceeds as if Erin has opted to investigate a vicious killing. But for Erin, the murder is more than just another case. More can't be said without introducing spoilers.

Kusama (Girl Fight) stages some searingly violent scenes, one involving Erin's confrontation with a wealthy lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who's up to no good. Erin also tries to thwart a robbery, a scene that calls for her to pick up an AR-15 and fire away. When two policemen show up to help, they ask Erin whether they shouldn't ask for additional back-up. Erin can't wait.

"This is a gunfight," she says, demonstrating how Kidman delivers a line that could have sprung from the mouths of Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To bolster the movie's realism, Kusama shows the effects of the physical beatings Erin takes. Put another way, the film's make-up department must have worked overtime. Kidman rises (or sinks, if you prefer) to the occasion as Erin moves through a punishing series of encounters.

The key to the story involves both external and internal factors that chew at Erin's life. She's a wreck and, as has been the case with many big-screen male detectives, we're constantly wondering whether she might find a glimmer of redemption before the movie ends.

Kidman's performance -- Erin walks as if carrying a sack of butchered meat on her shoulders -- suggests defeat: We see it in Erin's bloodshot eyes and in her depleted emotions. Sporting a leather jacket and ill-fitting jeans, Erin has long given up worrying about her appearance. But (and I hate to say it), I never entirely could forget that this was Nicole Kidman made up to look terrible.

Kusama doesn't always handle the movie's various time shifts with aplomb and it sometimes feels as if she's after something more than genre kicks. But Destroyer leaves us adrift in a world so corrupted that it admits almost no ameliorating rays of light and, I'm afraid, no compelling reason (other than furious acting) why we should want to be there.

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