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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.
The director Karyn Kusama makes that easy to do with a snaky, propulsive story that takes Bell across Los Angeles and routinely drops her back into her troubled past. The through line is provided by a murdered man found facedown on an embankment, a corpse-as-clue (and red herring). There are a couple of other detectives already at the scene and working the case; they groan when Bell approaches, eyeballs rolling. But for some reason Bell crashes the party. By the time she is shuffle-staggering into her precinct, earning more derisive looks and comments, her pariah bona fides are secure.
Little of what Bell does next makes her more attractive or pleasant or remotely relatable, which is a relief. When female stars take on physically transformative roles that are also aggressively unlikable, it’s sometimes called brave (Charlize Theron in “Monster”); when male stars do the same, it’s called acting (Christian Bale in “Vice”). Kidman has played with her looks before, most conspicuously with the fake honker she wore as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.” The makeup she wears as Bell at her most dissolute and beaten-down isn’t much more realistic. But its artificiality works because it looks like a disguise, like a rubber mask she put on long ago and eventually grew into.
That mask is dropped when the story flashes back to the past, when Bell was in her 20s and working undercover for the F.B.I. (Kidman’s reverse aging is persuasive and unshowy.) Along with another cop, Chris (Sebastian Stan), Bell joins one of those creepy drug gangs that infest the Southern California hinterlands (or at least movies about the same), the kind with chain-link fences, desperately barking dogs and junkyard detritus. Inside, as the characters and the camera creep through the eerie, diffused light, Kusama establishes an unsettling milieu that a sly-looking Bell eases into as if born to it.
Working with a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Kusama navigates the past and present confidently. The three also collaborated on the claustrophobic thriller “The Invitation.” “Destroyer” gives Kusama more to do, including explore Los Angeles, which she does with an appreciable lack of glamorizing. The most self-conscious beauty shot is dropped in a nighttime chase that takes Bell and her prey through scrubby greenery that’s framed by the jewel-like downtown skyline. The chase nicely distills the city’s contrasts (and nods at Michael Mann), reaching its apogee with an image of Dodger Stadium that is as lit up as the spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
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.
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.