Nicole Kidman assumes a startlingly cadaverous pallor to play her half-dead character in “Destroyer,” a piece of L.A. noir at its scuzziest and most sun-baked. As an exercise in actorly transformation, joyless determination and uncompromising tone, this procedural whodunit set in the city’s seediest precincts and arid, desolate outer reaches can’t help but inspire admiration. For Kidman, “Destroyer” is simply the latest in a long career of fascinating, often nervily risk-taking career choices, in which she submerges her lithe grace and porcelain beauty to inhabit the toughest characters and stories.
As easy as it is to laud Kidman’s commitment, however, there’s a sense that “Destroyer” can’t leave grim enough alone. This is a movie obviously impressed with its pulpiest affectations — including outrageous violence, cynical sexuality, promiscuous criminality and an overarching sense of hopelessness — but it seems not to know when to stop, continually going a little too far for its own good.
From the outset, the more-is-more ethic is evident — and unnecessarily distracting — in Kidman’s makeup job: As Erin Bell, a barely functioning alcoholic and Los Angeles police detective, Kidman has been given her most astonishing makeover since her Virginia Woolf nose in “The Hours.” Here, her skin is waxy and greenish, her eyes sunken in bruised shadows, her hair frizzled into an indecipherable shag. As “Destroyer” opens, Erin wakes up — presumably after her latest bender — in her car under a bleak underpass. A murder victim has been discovered nearby, and when she unofficially joins the investigating officers, she realizes she recognizes the corpse.
Thus begins an enigmatic, often savagely punishing journey through Southern California’s crime world and Erin’s own memory. “Destroyer,” written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, toggles between her troublingly dysfunctional present (addiction, isolation, a teenage daughter going perilously off the rails) and a slightly less despairing past, when her life might not have taken such a self-destructive turn. Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany and Toby Kebbell deliver assured, occasionally terrifying performances as figures from that time in Erin’s life; Maslany in particular shows up for one of “Destroyer’s” most memorably scathing action sequences.
Directed with bare-knuckled verve by Karyn Kusama — who is obviously well-schooled in a genre epitomized by the likes of “Heat,” “Detour” and, more recently, “Rampart” — this plunge into the corruption and class stratifications of modern-day L.A. plays like the desiccated, far more pessimistic cousin of “Widows,” which addresses similarly dark corners of Chicago.
But as vigorous and go-for-broke as Kusama is, and as exhilarating as it can be to watch Kidman collaborate so fearlessly with a filmmaker of such pitiless vision, “Destroyer” finally collapses under its own lugubrious weight. Erin’s Stygian journey feels like it’s supposed to be a moral reckoning, but it has all the depth of a simple — and simplistic — revenge tale. Once the audience figures out the “who” of the “dunit,” which they’re likely to early on, the movie turns into a ravaging, repetitive slog of one hard-boiled set piece after another.
Filmed in her harshest light at her most unforgiving angles, Kidman does her best to invest Erin with layers, despite the bloodshot, zombie-like makeup and prosthetics that threaten to overwhelm her carefully tuned performance. In the end, even the ferocity of her avenging angel — as tarnished as she is righteous — can’t save “Destroyer” from its own sour excesses.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use. 120 minutes.