Destroyer (2018) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A gritty crime drama starring Nicole Kidman

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“Destroyer” is a gritty crime drama film with a few interesting spins on its familiar genre conventions. While this is surely another gloomy movie revolving around one tough but troubled cop, it tries to do something different via its female lead character, and I appreciate that to some degree even though the result is rather disappointing despite the commendable efforts from its fearless lead performer.

Nicole Kidman, who effectively dials down her usual glamorous impression and looks quite more ungainly and haggard here in this film, plays Erin Bell, a seasoned LAPD detective who becomes very agitated when one of her old cases in the past resurfaces to haunt her again. Around 16 years ago, she did an undercover mission along with her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), and something quite bad happened to them when they got themselves involved more with a group of bank robbers led by a guy named Silas (Toby Kebbell), who disappeared shortly after that incident. When Erin comes to her police station, there is a package for her, and it contains a certain small object which clearly signifies to her that Silas has returned to be back in his criminal activity after a long period of absence.

Erin decides to take care of this matter alone without telling much to others including her current partner, and the first half of the movie focuses on how she tries to track down her old opponent step by step. When she confronts a very sick ex-con who was once one of Silas’ gang members, she is quite determined to extract any useful information from him, and she eventually finds herself doing a rather unsavory thing as requested by him. When she visits a sleazy lawyer associated with Silas, their meeting is not very pleasant to say the least, and she does not hesitate to coerce him by any means necessary for getting what she wants from him.

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In the meantime, the movie also pays some attention to Erin’s messy personal life. While it is evident from the beginning that she has a drinking problem, she has been estranged from her ex-husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy) and their daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), and Shelby is not so pleased when her mother interferes with what is going on between her and her current boyfriend. It is quite apparent to Erin that her daughter’s boyfriend is your typical bad boy, but Shelby does not seem to mind that much, and she is also quite frank about her old anger and resentment toward her mother – especially when they are supposed to have a sincere private meeting at one point.

And we get to know more about Erin’s relationship with Chris, who was the only one she could trust and lean on as operating amid Silas and other dangerous criminals. When the situation became more serious as Silas and his gang members were about to execute their big criminal plan, Erin and Chris naturally became more cautious than before, but then Erin came to have a certain idea about how they would handle the ongoing situation, and Chris agreed to go along with that despite the considerable potential danger they were bound to face in one way or another.

As busily going back and forth between its two narrative lines, the movie tries to engage us more, but the screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also participated in the production of the film, often falters in terms of plot and characters. While it is interesting to observe its variations of genre elements via a female perspective, the depiction of Erin and other substantial characters in the story is usually too flat and bland to interest us, and we come to observe its story and characters from the distance without much care – even when the mood becomes more intense as required during the second half of the movie.

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Anyway, Kidman admirably carries the film with her committed acting, which is the main reason why the movie works from time to time. While never stepping away from her edgy character’s unlikable aspects, she conveys well to us whatever is churning behind her character’s weary façade, and she is particularly good when Erin is driven further by her increasingly obsessive search for her old opponent. Even though she could just let others handle the case instead, Erin is determined to go all the way for getting things done in her own way, and Kidman did a fine job of embodying her character’s dogged stubbornness.

In contrast, the other notable cast members of the film are relatively under-utilized mainly due to their underdeveloped characters. While Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Tatiana Maslany, and Toby Kebbell are mostly stuck with their thankless one-dimensional roles, Bradley Whitford manages to leave some impression during his brief appearance, and Jade Pettyjohn holds her own place well during her several scenes with Kidman. She is especially wonderful when her character comes to have a real honest conversation with Erin later in the story, and I think we can have some expectation on her burgeoning acting career.

“Destroyer” is directed by Karyn Kusama, who once had a big breakthrough with her first feature film “Girlfight” (2000) and subsequently made “Æon Flux” (2005), “Jennifer’s Body” (2009), and “The Invitation” (2015). Although I am not satisfied enough to recommend, the movie is not a total waste of time at least thanks to Kusama’s competent direction, and I can only hope that she will soon move onto better things to come.

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