Years ago, a cop was assigned to infiltrate a criminal organisation in Los Angeles. Things went horribly wrong, people died who oughtn't have, and the cop fell into a self-loathing spiral that neatly dovetailed with how much everyone in her department stopped trusting her. Now, the leader of that gang has - possibly - restarted his criminal activities, and only the disgraced, broken-down cop can see it. Thus she throws herself into the self-destructive work of going back through every member of the gang she can find, hoping to scrounge up the information she needs to stop the gangleader while also ripping open all of her own emotional scabs.

Thus is the plot of Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, and directed by Karyn Kusama. It's also, at least in the broad strokes, the plot to, like, a lot of movies stretching all the way back to the glory days of the film noir (you need very little imagine to hear in the scenario echoes of Out of the Past, one of the most definitive of noirs). There is one thing that gives any particular freshness: the cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), is a woman, and cop movies are still gendered enough for that feel like it gives a new spin on old material. Perhaps related, Erin is also presented less as a caustic, sardonic cynic with a hard-boiled wit, and more as a totally worn-out, exhausted, angry figure, someone who has given up life altogether and is disgusted with nobody more than herself.

Take out that light tonal shading, and what's left is pretty much boilerplate. Sometimes, it is well-executed boilerplate; the opening sequences especially, which showcase Erin's belligerent wisdom, and the patronising disdain that her colleagues feel for her are captured beautifully by Kusama, cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, and editor Plummy Tucker: the slightly-too-bright sun makes the scene uncomfortable even before the unusual choice of angles makes Erin feel off-kilter and distressed simply by how she moves through the space. Most of it is perfectly, in every way possible, unexceptional. It's the kind of movie that feels in most of its strong scenes like an episode of a TV police procedural that you never hunt out, but you're usually fine with leaving it on; and in its weak scenes, it's more like an episode of a procedural that cause you to mildly roll your eyes at the people who watch that shit.

The difference between strong scenes and weak scenes is easy enough to pick out. The film takes place in two time periods: about 17 years or so ago, when Erin was placed into the gang by her sexy handler Chris (Sebastian Stan), and now, when everything has gone to shit, and she meets up with all the people who look much fresher and livelier in the flashback footage, though nobody looks as jarringly different as Erin herself. My basic guide to the movie is that, when it's taking place in the present, it's a fine, if overfamiliar cop drama: full of slowly-boiling guilt and regret, making the most out of the sight of people being worn out and irritable. When it's taking place in the past, it over-explains, drags down the momentum of what is at no point a fast-paced movie, and most importantly, gives us a much less interesting central performance (we'll get there in a second). Decades of "washed-up cop has to make a tour of the past" stories have demonstrated that you can tell this exact plot, perfectly well, with nothing but the misery of the present, and perhaps one or two quick flashbacks to give some context and provide a jarring contrast. Destroyer is close to a 50/50 split between past and present, so there's not really much that's jarring; we see enough of young, powerful Erin and old, decaying Erin that the contrast between the two becomes mostly normalised. And rather than crisply and efficiently moving us through contemporary Erin's painful reckoning with her past, the flashbacks muddy the whole thing up.

If this leaves Destroyer somewhat of a bloated, cliché-ridden story, the movie has one card up its sleeve: Kidman. This is by no means a subtle or obscure performance, to be delicately teased out. This is being hit in the face with a cannonball. On paper, and honestly for the first 10 or 15 minutes, this is pure, undiluted "give me a motherfucking Oscar right now" stuff: the shift between the earnest, wiry Erin of years gone by and the sad, bleary Erin she will become would already be enough to do it, but the film doubles-down by subjecting Kidman to the full de-glam approach, putting her in uglifying makeup that looks rather unavoidably similar to the job that was done on Charlize Theron for her own Oscar-winning performance in 2003's Monster. We've got the mottled, flushed red skin, the stringy dry hair that looks like it would snap if Kidman were to run her hands through it, chapped lips, and a pale ring around the eyes that the lighting accentuates, giving Kidman the distinct appearance of somebody wandering around with the start of cataracts. It's clear from the way this is staged that "holy shit, Nicole Kidman looks gross!" is meant to be a substantial driving force of the film all by itself, and for a while, it really does feel like she's entirely permitting the make-up to do her job for her.

Once one gets used to it, though, and used to the strange register Kidman is playing, it turns out that this really is a pretty substantial piece of screen acting. It's big and broad and performative, no two ways about it, but it's eventually clear that the performance isn't Kidman being campy as Erin, it's Erin herself leaning into her own decrepitude, exulting in how awful she's become, relishing the freedom this gives her to just go and be a mean hard-ass bastard of a cop. It helps that we can contrast the flashbacks, where Kidman is playing things  much straighter (this is, in fact, the only value the flashbacks actually offer). As the film progresses, and we learn more about the things Erin has lost, we also get to see that there's more than just "antisocial bad cop", but actual some pain underneath that, which Kidman is careful to reveal before swallowing it up. I'm not much of a fan of "see this otherwise substandard film because it has one great performance" as a guide to film reviewing, but Kidman is really good - the film is also really substandard, thanks to that dreary flashback structure, but as a longstanding fan of this particular actor, I must confess that I do not regret the time I spent watching the film. Not very much, anyway.