[Screen It]

"DESTROYER"
(2019) (Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A burned out cop tries to track down the cult-like leader of a group of bank robbers who she and her partner previously infiltrated while undercover.
PLOT:
Erin Bell (NICOLE KIDMAN) is a burned-out LAPD officer with a defiant 16-year-old daughter, Shelby (JADE PETTYJOHN), who lives with Erin's ex-husband, Ethan (SCOOT McNAIRY). Erin has the look of someone who's been through Hell and back and her past torment returns when she receives a dye-stained one hundred dollar bill through the mail. That automatically makes her believe that the cult-like leader -- Silas Howe (TOBY KEBBELL), of a group of bank robbers who she and her partner, Chris (SEBASTIAN STAN), previously infiltrated while undercover -- is back at work.

Accordingly, and while contending with Shelby dating a much older man, Jay (BEAU KNAPP), Erin tries to track down Silas through those previously involved in the past bank robberies. They include Toby (JAMES JORDAN), who's terminally ill; Arturo (ZACH VILLA), who now provides free legal advice to immigrants; and Petra (TATIANA MASLANY), Silas' girlfriend who's his go-between with his money-laundering lawyer, Dennis DiFranco (BRADLEY WHITFORD). As she makes her way through them, she must contend with bad memories of her and Chris' undercover assignment with those criminals.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
There's a pivotal scene in Karyn Kusama's riveting "Destroyer" where a lawyer gives a piece of advice for a determined but out of bounds cop. At that moment, the sleazy and condescending but obviously uber-wealthy attorney (Bradley Whitford) gives the burned out, worn out and seemingly dragged through Hell and back detective (Nicole Kidman) a bit of life advice. And that is that successful people get over "sh*t."

He's telling her this as she's after a man from her traumatic past for whom he now launders money and isn't about to give up the man's whereabouts. Accordingly, one of his goons grabs her by the hair and delivers a few blows to her midsection, resulting in a bout of vomiting.

But that allows her to regroup, deal with that bodyguard, and then confront the crooked lawyer with a bit more force this time, all of which allows her to continue her quest and proves her resiliency in what seems certain to be a path of almost guaranteed additional pain.

We're introduced to that world right from the get-go as Kusama -- who works from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi -- opens the film close on Kidman's face. This isn't the gorgeous movie star we've grown used to seeing over the years in films such as "Days of Thunder," "Moulin Rouge!" and more recently, "Aquaman" and "Boy Erased." Instead, and in something of a cinematic cousin to Charlize Theron's role in "Monster," the Aussie actress has completely de-glammed herself for the role of LAPD detective Erin Bell.

As her eyes slowly open in the center of dark circles and a mug that looks like it's seen too much sun, booze, and any other hardship life could throw in one's face, the character seemingly looks through the camera and off into the distance, most likely that of the past.

And that's because she's haunted by just that when she and her cop partner (Sebastian Stan) went undercover as a couple to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers led by a charismatic, cult-like figure, Silas (Toby Kebbell) who seemingly could have been the lovechild of Jim Morrison and some Doors groupie from long ago.

She arrives on the scene of a murder where neither the victim or the gun can be identified, although three circular tattoos on the back of the neck would seem to indicate something. Erin's tussled mane just so happens to cover scars of seemingly identical tats that were removed from her neck sometime in the past, so we realize there's a connection between the two, but all the other law enforcement figures see is a burned out shell of a woman.

We see the same, but after the cop receives a dye-stained one-hundred dollar bill and realizes Silas is either cleaning up things from the past or starting anew, Kusama and her scribes have the story jump back in time to see the much younger, prettier and striking cop about to go undercover with Chris. The two need to practice being a convincing couple and thus kiss, something we figure is ultimately going to come into play down the line.

And it does, but Kusama takes her sweet time before everything is revealed in what turns out to be a fairly engrossing two hours. While there aren't any Tarantino-esque surprises to be found in the time-shuffling, the filmmaker -- who previously helmed the likes of "Girlfight" and "Jennifer's Body" -- keeps us interested throughout. That's not only due to the taut direction, but also a terrific score by Theodore Shapiro (that mixes a sort of post-apocalyptic punk sound with traditional horror tones) and, of course, an absolutely terrific performance by Kidman.

I found it to be some of her best work and think it's the best female performance of 2018, partly because she's so convincing in the role (including every aspect of how she embodies the physicality and body movements of this damaged woman who's been beaten down my life). But it's also because she disappears so completely into the character that you forget the actress you're watching.

Thus, you can't take your eyes off her, both in the present as she makes her way through the past bank robbers -- played by Tatiana Maslany, Zach Villa and James Jordan -- to get to the top guy, as well as in the past when she interacts with the same while falling for her partner as both are deep, deep undercover. And there are good (if stressful) scenes between the self-admitted bad mom and her now rebellious and teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn).

I was pretty much riveted from start to finish and liked most everything about the film, fully aware that it's gritty and grim nature isn't going to be for all or even many viewers. But if you're willing to go along for the ride, you'll witness both an actress and a female director at the top of their games, something I'd like to see more of going forward. "Destroyer" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed November 27, 2018 / Posted January 11, 2019


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