Destroyer begins with a bedraggled, hungover L.A. police detective being summoned to a crime scene: a man with a distinctive tattoo on the back of his neck shot dead, surrounded by ink-stained money. The weathered detective, Erin Bell, played by a severely de-beautified Nicole Kidman, tells her colleagues she might know who did it. When she gets back in her car, we see that she used to have the same tattoo.
More intriguing details pile up quickly in this grimy, darkly comic neo-noir from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also penned Kusama’s last movie, The Invitation (you should see The Invitation). Det. Bell interprets the inky cash as a message that a scumbag named Silas (Toby Kebbell) — whose gang of bank robbers she once infiltrated on an undercover assignment with fellow cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) — is back in town, so she starts tracking down his associates. It’s one of those stories where nobody knows where he is, so Bell has to strong-arm a series of lowlifes into telling her what they do know so she can piece it together. (Bradley Whitford has an amusing scene as a criminal “fixer” whom Bell intimidates at his Hollywood Hills mansion.)
Aiding Bell in her strong-arming is the fact that she is, as the kids say, out of effs to give. In the present, she has a resentful 16-year-old daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who has a sleazy older boyfriend (Beau Knapp) whom Bell is thisclose to just murdering. (“I don’t care what happens to me,” she tells him, which he probably thinks is a bluff but which we have seen is absolutely true.) Flashbacks explain what went wrong in the old undercover assignment, and how it made Bell into the weary, cynical ballbuster she is today. Each former acquaintance she finds (none of whom are glad to see her again) reminds her more about how much she’s lost. You don’t want to be on this woman’s bad side, but that’s where pretty much everyone is.
Kidman’s haggard appearance is the work of the hair and makeup department, but the character’s exhilarating free-fall into self-destruction is all Kidman. I sometimes forget, with all the delicate roles she plays, how great she is when she gets her face dirty and her knuckles bloody. Her intensity as Erin Bell is fearsome and funny, and the clever screenplay is structured so that we’re still learning new information about her right up to the end.