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'Destroyer' review: Nicole Kidman is outstanding in this modern-day film noir

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama's "Destroyer." Credit: Annapurna Pictures/Sabrina Lantos

PLOT An undercover cop seeks to avenge the death of her partner.

CAST Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell

RATED R (strong violence and language)


PLAYING AT Opens Dec. 25 at Angelika Film Center and Landmark at 57 West in Manhattan. Opens locally in January.

BOTTOM LINE A truly dark neo-noir with a wrenchingly good Kidman.

Yes, that’s Nicole Kidman, dressed in last week’s laundry and looking like a human hangover in “Destroyer,” a grimy neo-noir by Karyn Kusama. To play the part of Erin Bell, an undercover LAPD officer whose youthful beauty has been desiccated by grief and alcohol, Kidman relied on her own acting talent, of course, along with artfully constructed, face-altering prosthetics. The former serves her wonderfully. I’m not convinced she needed the latter.

Either way, “Destroyer” is a worthwhile film, especially for moviegoers who love film noir in all its phases: The hard-boiled Bogart era, the nihilist takes of the 1960s and ‘70s, the neon-lit productions of the ‘80s. “Destroyer” is highly unusual for having a female protagonist (quick, name some others) as well as a female director. Otherwise, though, it’s steeped in tradition. Set in a dusky Los Angeles populated almost entirely by creeps. “Destroyer” strikes notes of both fury and despair, somewhere between John Boorman’s rageaholic “Point Blank” (1967) and William Friedkin’s soul-killing “To Live and Die in L.A” (1985).

Written by Phil Hay (the director’s husband) and Matt Manfredi, “Destroyer” toggles between two stories. One is the present, in which Erin tries to track down Silas (Toby Kebbell), a criminal ringleader with a cultlike magnetism. The other is a years-ago past, in which Erin’s undercover partner and lover, Chris (a touching Sebastian Stan), dies while working with Silas’ group. The present is more entertaining, partly because Kidman is so convincing as a woman willing to do anything — from taking a beating to pleasuring a dying man — to reach her goal. Only gradually do we find out that what's driving her is guilt. Jade Pettyjohn plays Shelby, Erin’s rebellious daughter, who is verging on becoming either a criminal or, perhaps worse, her mom.

In flashbacks, Erin looks like the Kidman we know, which I found disconcerting: Has sorrow and hard living changed this woman’s bone structure? Bill Corso, the make-up artist who enlarged Steve Carell’s nose in “Foxcatcher,” seems to have broadened Kidman’s whole face, giving her an arresting but sometimes inexplicable appearance. For me, Kidman’s croaking voice, shambling walk and desperate eyes did the loudest talking. It’s her performance, not her appearance, that contains this film’s noirish soul.

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