Nicole Kidman is almost unrecognizable in “Destroyer,” in which she 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, she undergoes a startling transformation, 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 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 bar stool 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.
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 working the case; they groan when Bell approaches. But for some reason Bell crashes the party. By the time she staggers 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 FBI. Along with another cop, Chris (Sebastian Stan), Bell joins one of those creepy drug gangs that infest the Southern California hinterlands, 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.
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). The very good cast also includes a fantastic Tatiana Maslany as a nightmare personified and Bradley Whitford. 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. Like a lot of movie detectives, she takes a pummeling while investigating. The brutalizing 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.
There’s warmth and feeling here, particularly in the younger Bell’s flashbacks with Chris, and some sentimentality, too. For the most part,, Kusama asks you to take Bell on her own terms. Bell’s identity isn’t fixed to one gender: She’s both the brawling detective and the tough-talking, concerned mother. Kusama has a singular unapologetic idea about what women can and cannot do on-screen, one she lets rip with verve and her superbly unbound star.