You can tell “Destroyer” is a quote-unquote serious thriller because Nicole Kidman is made up to look terrible. This isn’t a case of a glamorous movie star dressing down to play a regular person — it’s a full-on prosthetic overhaul at which the camera constantly leers, unbecomingly. The film begins with an extreme cinemascope closeup of Kidman’s sunken, bloodshot eyes, snapping awake in her car with what seems to be one hell of a hangover. Her cheeks have the texture of shedded reptile skin left to rot in the desert, and in her mouth are chiclet-sized dentures that appear to be coated with algae.
It’s a tremendous shock seeing one of the world’s most beautiful women looking such a fright, and also an empty one. The entire marketing campaign and awards play for “Destroyer” have been centered on Kidman’s transformation, which is the kind of thing critics are supposed to call “brave.” But to be honest I found it all a bit silly and way overdone, wallowing in over-deliberate grotesquerie as some sort of misguided mark of integrity — which, come to think of it, is a pretty good way to sum up the movie itself.
Directed by Karyn Kusama, “Destroyer” is a harsh, nihilistic crime story far too enamored of its own ugliness. It’s one of those posturing, overwrought neo-noirs in the “True Detective” mode, where everyone’s hyperbolically seedy and predictably corrupt. Kidman stars as LAPD Detective Erin Bell, an emaciated alcoholic who speaks in a raspy, strangulated whisper, like if Clint Eastwood swallowed a Brillo Pad. The movie’s hardass humorlessness is almost instantly enervating.
Our saga begins with an unidentified corpse and a $100 bill smeared with the purple stain of a bank’s dye-pack. It’s the loot from a botched heist Erin worked undercover as a sheriff’s deputy in Palm Springs almost 17 years ago, and we’re slowly going to find out — and I mean very, very slowly — how that job turned her into the scowling, drunken wreck she is today.
What’s interesting about the picture is watching Kidman carry out time-honored traditions of male movie detectives throughout history — rolling into work late wearing a badass leather jacket, sarcastically sassing back at her colleagues and slapping around suspects with little regard for the letter of the law. It’s all cliched cop behavior but there’s a fascinating frission when you’re seeing a woman get away with it. Kusama’s first feature, the rousing 2000 boxing drama “Girlfight” had a similar gender-flipped dynamic that I wish she’d explored further here.
Instead we get the central mystery doled out in gradually expanding flashbacks, watching a clean-cut Kidman as a naïve rookie, falling in love with her partner (Sebastian Stan) as they attempt to infiltrate a creepy cult of tattooed bank robbers. Led by a slightly sinister Toby Kebbell — nowhere near as darkly magnetic as the role demands — this goth gang is odd and underdeveloped, supposedly master criminals who seem to spend most of their time moping around listening to Godsmack.
Too bad, because Kusama can direct the hell out of an action sequence. There’s a mid-movie robbery gone wrong that crackles with energy, followed by a pulse-pounding foot chase that has a scary physicality. Kidman’s all too briefly given a fine foil in the form of Tatiana Maslany’s committed cult member, but the screenplay stupidly discards the character right when things are getting interesting. Her wild-eyed volatility gives this moody movie a shot in the arm. (I wish I could say the same for a crazily miscast Bradley Whitford as a bellowing, track-suited mobster in a John Gotti wig. But hey, he certainly seems to be enjoying himself.)
The screenplay, by Kusama’s husband Phil Hay and his regular co-writer Matt Manfredi, is trying so hard to be dark and edgy that it often slips into self-parody. (This team’s previous foray into police pictures was the Ice Cube/Kevin Hart “Ride Along” series, so they’re not exactly working in their wheelhouse here.) The strain shows most during an icky interrogation during which Kidman is required to fondle and spit on the genitals of a bedridden, terminally ill informant in exchange for evidence. It’s like a high school sophomore’s imagining of what “Bad Lieutenant” must be like, and left me feeling embarrassed for all involved.
But their biggest problem is one of faulty construction, as the script parcels out backstory at such a snail’s pace we wind up way ahead of what the movie is showing. The last half-hour of “Destroyer” is spent waiting around to see stuff the audience has already figured out.
Kidman consistently takes bigger risks than any other performer at her pay grade, but I have little patience for prosthetic gimmicks or when stars ugly themselves up in brazen bids for credibility. To a lot of folks this passes for great acting, like when after years of terrific performances Charlize Theron wasn’t taken seriously until she gained weight and buried her face in latex for “Monster.” George Clooney had to grow a beard and a gut before winning an Oscar for “Syriana,” and Kidman didn’t take home one of her own until she wore that ridiculous rubber beak in “The Hours.” (See also, every time Christian Bale overeats or diets his way to rapturous acclaim. The dude’s nutritionist should have a shelf full of Golden Globes.)
The hideous makeup Kidman wears in “Destroyer” does not make the character feel more authentic or believable to me. In fact, it does the opposite and only serves to highlight the movie’s queasy emphasis on shock value over substance. There’s probably a great performance going on underneath all that goop, but it’s almost impossible to see. I honestly had an easier time buying her as a trident-wielding, underwater sea queen wearing a crustacean-shell suit of armor in “Aquaman.” It was a less distracting look.