LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is on the trail of a violent gang leader (Toby Kebbell) who she was embedded with as part of an undercover operation with over a decade ago. Haunted by the memories of her time with them, Bell goes on a rampage across Los Angeles in search of her former gang members.
The general vibe you'd get from looking at the trailer for 'Destroyer' is that it's Nicole Kidman sans makeup doing her own twist on 'True Detective' or any other crime cop TV series you can think of. All the markers are there. There's the leather jacket, the bad attitude, the chip on the shoulder, there's even the absent partner she's trying to keep out of her story (for his own good), and then there's the utter sh*t-show of a personal life. 'Destroyer' embraces just about every cliche in the hard-boiled, noir crime genre there is - but funnels them into a pot that's laced with examinations of misogyny, power dynamics in relationships, and the idea of justice versus vengeance.
Right from the get-go, 'Destroyer' is Nicole Kidman's movie and she proves yet again what a compelling performer she really is. She soaks up each and every scene, but her portrayal isn't one that's just about the physical. Her shuffle shows the age and brokenness of her being, and her frizzy hair and dead-eyed glare speaks more than pithy one-liners ever could. When she speaks, it's a raspy whisper that's been reduced to that through years of rage, resentment and violence. The supporting cast, which includes a subtle performance by Sebastian Stan as her fellow undercover partner and Bradley Whitford at his slimiest in years, all serve to push Kidman into the centre of the story.
Really, that's where Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's script is at its best - when it's perched on Kidman's shoulder and watching her rip it up as this pissed-off avenger pistol-whipping people whenever she feels like it. A subplot involving her on-screen daughter, with a memorbale performance by Jade Pettyjohn, gives each of these scenes emotional context and when it culminates with the central plot, it feels satisfying and earned. The script does feel like it plods point to point, but that's just part and parcel of the genre and ultimately as cliched as the leather jacket Kidman wears. Yes, it's obvious, but does it matter when it's this good?
Karyn Kusama's direction is laser-focused and is finely attuned to the neo-noir visuals, with the city's broken landscape and ever-present sunshine taking on an almost glaring contrast to the dark and shady dealings of everyone involved. There's an action sequence in the middle of the second act that's really tightly staged, and makes you wonder what Kusama could do with a big budget. But more than that, what 'Destroyer' has and what Kusama understands is that the violence and rage has to have an emotional couching, and that's evident in every scene with Kidman.
That it's been overlooked this awards season for directing and writing should come as no surprise, as crime noirs are almost as ignored as horror and tends to be viewed as a medium now more suited for long-form television than anything else. Nevertheless, 'Destroyer' is a tightly-wound crime thriller that features one hell of a performance by Nicole Kidman, and a strong visual narrative by Karyn Kusama.