Not an actor prone to halfway measures, Nicole Kidman goes all the way in “Destroyer,” her aggressively unpleasant new movie. Her character is the kind of burnout we’re used to seeing men play in films like this: a troubled cop, alcoholic and irresponsible, haunted by the past.
Kidman has ratty hair and sun-damaged skin, and her uncertain stride betrays the effects of a hangover. She looks like she just woke up by the side of one of LA’s concrete stormwater runoffs, which in fact is where we discover her at the beginning of the film.
Something terrible happened to her character, Erin Bell, while working for the LAPD many years before. Her colleagues — nearly all of whom react to her presence with the disgust of people who have just discovered a foul smell in a small room — want her to lay off a new murder case. But it has roots in her past.
The most interesting thing about Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script is the way it dances between time periods — we only gradually figure out the nature of Erin’s disastrous past experience. Toward the end, the time-flipping turns out to be maybe the most intriguing and surprising part of the movie.
Other than that, we’re stuck with an overbaked character who would be a hard-boiled cliche if it were a man. Switching the sex around doesn’t make it fresh.
Director Karyn Kusama, who did a nifty job with the slow-burning “The Invitation,” has assembled a nice cast for the other, generally small roles: Toby Kebbell (from “Kong: Skull Island”) as a super-controlling Charles Manson type; Scoot McNairy as Erin’s weary ex; Toby Huss as a sympathetic fellow cop; and Bradley Whitford, the unctuous dad from “Get Out,” as a shady operator in a scene that generates real snap.
Erin’s romantic interest is a fellow cop played in flashbacks by Sebastian Stan, the stubbornly anonymous actor who plays the Winter Soldier in the “Avengers” flicks. These sequences play like some half-remembered dream where you’re unsure exactly what everybody’s supposed to be doing — not always a great strategy in a thriller.
Kusama and Kidman create genuine discomfort in several sequences, but it’s not enough to make “Destroyer” break out of its too-familiar mode.
Kidman gives an impressively physical performance. But she looks so weird — even with her debauched makeup, she’s got sparkling eyes and razor-sharp jawline — that I found it tiring to watch her. The film’s being released now in case she picks up an Oscar nomination, to be announced Tuesday. That might not happen, but a nomination for the Best Makeup Oscar has a real shot.
“Destroyer” (2 stars)
Nicole Kidman gives her all to this aggressively unpleasant tale of a hard-boiled LAPD officer, investigating a murder case while haunted by her past. Director Karyn Kusama can’t disguise the fact that this character would be a cliche if it were played by a man, and the movie’s flashback-heavy structure ends up being the most interesting thing about it.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Opening Friday: Pacific Place