Nicole Kidman gives a perfectly grotesque performance in Destroyer

Karyn Kusama’s film has its hard-boiled clichés but hits the right notes with its low-key grit.

Nicole Kidman in Destroyer

Growing up, I read a lot of crime fiction. It was (and may well still be, though I’m no longer around the visual evidence of it very often) my dad’s favourite and, as a precocious and voracious reader, I just read whatever was around. I can’t say that many of those books really made an impression on me, but if there’s anything I remember from them, it’s the characters — not the mysteries. You can have the densest, most deft and intricate mystery plot, but you’re not likely to follow along if the lead character is a beige, by-the-book bore.

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer isn’t based on a book series, but it very well could be; Erin Bell is exactly the kind of hard-boiled, tragic character that drives the dad-centric paperback industry. Unfortunately for her, she’s the prisoner of a movie that plays very much by those rules. It’s a plot-heavy, narrative-fireworks-dominated thriller that still manages to deliver the gritty, fatalistic detective goods.

Even in the pantheon of loose-cannon, irresponsible cops, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a piece of work. Struggling with a drinking problem, a limp and a chronic lack of going anywhere but her car to sleep, she’s not exactly the LAPD’s top choice for any job. She’s nevertheless called to the site when a gang member is found riddled with bullets. Turns out she knows who the guy is because she spent years infiltrating his Palm Desert gang nearly two decades ago. The operation went poorly, leaving her partner and love interest Chris (Sebastian Stan) dead, and being drawn back into the fold only rips open old wounds that never quite healed.

It all involves drinking too much, taking the law into her own hands, pausing briefly to try and bring her delinquent daughter back on the right path, drinking some more, almost never talking to other cops or going to the precinct or doing the things that one would expect from an actual cop. Part of what’s fascinating about Kusama’s approach to the material is that it never really mistakes grit for realism. There’s something vaguely hazy and dream-like about what happens — not so much in the dadaist or Lynchian way where nonsense just piles up, but in the way that the character of Erin Bell never quite seems to gel with the world around her. Let me put it this way: there’s nothing even remotely resembling a Sixth Sense-type twist in Destroyer, but it would make sense if there was.

Part of the marketing behind Destroyer revolves around the fact that its glamorous star “deglammed” for the part, which supposedly required a kind of earthy realism that Destroyer ultimately doesn’t really have — but is all the better for it. With a shock of grey-brown hair, strung-out features and a beat-up leather blazer of the type that would scream drug dealer in a ’90s movie, Erin Bell doesn’t really look (or act, for that matter) like anyone who could conceivably exist in the world of today, and that manages to be a large part of Destroyer’s appeal. She’s a typically male archetype that already doesn’t really exist thrust into a world that doesn’t have space for her, and it makes the film surprisingly compelling, even when it piles on the hardboiled clichés.

Destroyer is one of those movies that’s only really a mystery because of the way they decided to tell it. Fragmented and explicitly non-linear, it dances around key plot points and casts them aside until it needs them — a writing technique that I’m not particularly fond of, but that’s executed with surprising dexterity here. I still contend that it’s cheap to withhold information that everyone in the scene would have only to drop in at the most convenient time later on, but Destroyer’s screenwriting acrobatics pair well with Kusama’s low-key grit and Kidman’s appealingly grotesque performance.

Frankly, Destroyer’s story is not one that necessarily begs to be told. It’s the same kind of shit that sub-Michael Manns have been mining for at least 20 years; in fact, it has quite a lot more in common than I expected with Den of Thieves, a serviceable B-picture that somehow got a second wind when auteur Christian Petzold professed his love for it. In other words, it’s somewhat imaginative B-movie pulp jazzed up with best efforts from people who you’d like to see doing something a little less familiar. ■

Destroyer opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 25. Watch the trailer here: