‘Destroyer’ Review: A Very Good Nicole Kidman Plays a Very Bad Woman | Modern Society of USA

‘Destroyer’ Review: A Very Good Nicole Kidman Plays a Very Bad Woman

‘Destroyer’ Review: A Very Good Nicole Kidman Plays a Very Bad Woman

Ho, ho, ho — nothing says the holidays like a beautifully ugly Nicole Kidman taking care of business with a submachine gun. But if you’re looking for counterprogramming, something to cut the “Mary Poppins” treacle, consider “Destroyer,” in which Kidman plays a very bad cop. Wearing a crust of disfiguring makeup and mousy hair that looks as if it has crawled out of a dumpster to take up residence on her head, Kidman is almost unrecognizable. The transformation is startling, and it forces you to scan her face and look, really look, at a woman you might otherwise turn away from.

When Erin Bell, the boozing detective and title character, first flutters her eyes open in “Destroyer,” she seems to have awakened from a 10-year bender. But she is nowhere near ready to quit drinking, instead surrendering to the oblivion it brings. With angry red lines spider-webbing the whites of her eyes, Bell seems most at home on a barstool or passed out in her car or on the floor of her decrepit, loveless house. A veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, she appears beyond the redemption that she slowly pursues in a movie that, bracingly, doesn’t ask you to like her, just to follow her lead.

As it switches between time frames, the story peels away Bell’s past in flashbacks while it teasingly reveals the mystery of her present. As history catches up with her, she checks in with her ex (Scoot McNairy) and has stern talks with her teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), who has taken up with a sleazoid (Beau Knapp). Someone here must have liked the show “Halt and Catch Fire,” because McNairy’s co-star Toby Huss is here, too. The very good cast also includes a fantastic Tatiana Maslany as a nightmare personified and Bradley Whitford, who’s become a go-to duplicitous white guy. This one has a mansion with an ocean view and a belittling attitude that ends with Bell in one of her knockdown brawls.

Kidman handles herself convincingly in these fights, despite her slender frame. The black leather jacket the older Bell wears gives the actress some physical heft, as does a ponderous, borderline leaden walk. At times, her steps seem purely autonomic, suggesting both extreme exhaustion and freakish resolve, as if Bell were willing herself upright. Like a lot of movie detectives, she takes a pummeling while investigating. The brutalizing here feels startling, though, not only because of the performer — who elsewhere can seem ethereal — but also because it’s unusual to see a female character who isn’t in a horror flick endure this degree of punishment.

Kusama, whose first movie, “Girlfight,” was about a female boxer, is unsparing toward Bell. There’s warmth and feeling here, particularly in the younger Bell’s flashbacks with Chris, and some sentimentality, too. For the most part, though, Kusama asks you to take Bell on her own terms, which includes seeing a character who in her older years transcends either-or masculine-feminine dualism. Bell’s identity isn’t fixed to one gender: She’s both the brawling, boozing detective and the tough-talking, naggingly concerned mother. That she’s also a better detective than a mother makes her somewhat of an outlier, at least in American movies.

If Bell were a man and father, and played by, say, Denzel Washington, this wouldn’t be a big ask. And yet part of what’s pleasurable about “Destroyer” is that Kusama doesn’t try to turn the movie into a finger-wagging lesson about gender. Instead, she embraces genre and sprinkles in her influences: A Dodger game on Bell’s car radio registers as a reference to Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” about a very different fall and redemption. Kusama is still figuring out how to balance form and pulp, but she has a singular unapologetic idea about what women can and cannot do onscreen, one she lets rip with verve and her superbly unbound star.

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