'Destroyer:' a satisfyingly twisted thriller overall

It was the worst of times, and the worst of times — a tale of one City of Angels whose “then” and “now” are equally rotten for Detective Erin Bell. She is played by Nicole Kidman, virtually unrecognizable in both her past- and present-tense roles in “Destroyer,” from first to last unglamorous closeup: pale pallor, splotchy complexion, red-rimmed eyes, skinny-verging-on-emaciated frame.

We find her, at the outset, showing up — uninvited and looking wasted — at a murder scene. The other tough LAPD detectives roll their eyes: “Long night, eh?”

The victim? “No ID, no idea.”

Just one odd clue: Some $100 bills stained with purple dye are strewn around the body. The on-duty cops tell her to scram. She does so, mumbling, “I know who did it.”

Flashback to a much younger Erin and her colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) being assigned, undercover, to infiltrate and thwart a gang of bank robbers. Since they’ll be posing as a couple, they figure it’s OK to try out a kiss...and OK for us to figure the pretend romance will become a real one. Meanwhile, back to the future-present, Erin tracks down a dying gang member in search of its sociopathic leader Silas (Toby Kebbell), who — in an incredibly intense flashback — forces gangster- turned-pastor Arturo (Zach Villa) to play Russian Roulette.

But Erin won’t get the info she needs unless she gives the dying gangster what he needs — which is not information. Yuk. Equally unpleasant are her attempted reunions with estranged teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), whose slimy boyfriend Jay (Beau Knapp) goads Erin, who ends up beating the caca out of Jay due to the lack of that anger-management course she never took.




Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Jade Pettyjohn.

Rating: R for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and drug use.

Director Karyn Kusama  — “The Invitation” (2000), “Girlfight” (2015) — works hard to create a gritty noir La La Land yarn in the “Chinatown” and Hammett-Chandler tradition, with fine help from Julie Kirkwood’s atmospheric nighttime cinematography...stakeouts in the rain, raindrops on the flashbacks, until we finally get the whole botched bank job (at a dumb Crenshaw Boulevard branch) in full and connect the tragic dots.

Ms. Kidman, a Golden Globe nominee for this role, is magnificent — not your standard rogue vigilante cop on a case she’s been taken off. Her brutal, revenge-driven character’s relentless way of going about it (and about belatedly trying to do right by her daughter) is repellant and empathetic in equal measure.

Such a wonderfully intelligent actress, as we’ve known for years, be it her Oscar-winning mom in “Lion” (2016) or as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002). You see the thought in her eyes first, then in the rest of her face, before she utters a line — even when the delivery is so whispery, it’s hard to understand.

“You can be better than me,” she tells Shelby. “She’ll never love you,” the boyfriend tells Erin. “She doesn’t have to,” Erin replies.

Doe-eyed Ms. Pettyjohn is convincing, too, throughout the long, schmaltzy mother-daughter scene in an Edward Hopper-esque diner. Bradley Whitford as the rich lawyer-villain DiFranco is terrific, especially when screaming at his son and ratting out his longtime girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) for a violent semi-climactic girlfight with Erin, the likes of which you’ve never seen.

Ms. Kidman has always been chameleon-like. It’s not just an accent or good makeup or a fake nose. She fearlessly commits to realizing both tormented sides of an ugly character with conviction and urgency.

“Destroyer” is far from perfect. Director Kusama perhaps aspires to greater profundity about self- sacrifice than the material really provides. But it’s a satisfyingly twisted thriller overall, with a rare feminine trifecta of star, director and cinematographer — Kidman, Kusuma and Kirkwood — all kicking into high gear.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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