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'Destroyer' Flips The Script On Gender Roles In Cop Movies

Jan 4, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 11:58 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new thriller "Destroyer," Nicole Kidman stars as a loose cannon LA police officer. Our critic at large John Powers says despite some shortcomings, it takes a familiar story and turns it into something new.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The history of the movies is teeming with stories about cops, who run the gamut from saints like Frank Serpico to psychos crazier than Dirty Harry. Yet, the one thing that most movie cops are not is female. And when they are, they tend to be sidekicks or like Marge Gunderson in "Fargo" to inhabit the likable end of the spectrum. This tendency gets exploded in "Destroyer," a fascinating but flawed noir thriller, starring Nicole Kidman as a drunken, pointedly unlikable cop.

It was directed by Karyn Kusama, who, like Kathryn Bigelow, has made her career working in genres hugely dominated by men. But she's done so from an even more overtly feminist angle. Ever since her terrific debut "Girlfight" about a boxer played by Michelle Rodriguez, Kusama has been telling stories of women who aren't afraid to come out swinging.

When we first meet Kidman's character, LAPD Detective Erin Bell, we're not sure she's even capable of lifting her fist. She's shockingly ravaged, so gaunt and so scuzzy that Kidman appears to be impersonating the latter day Harry Dean Stanton. But when a murdered man turns up carrying a bill from a bank robbery, Bell kicks into action. And as she does, "Destroyer" begins cutting between two time periods whose full connection is only revealed at the end. In the present day story, Bell is tracking a mysterious bank robber named Silas, played by Toby Kebbell - a largely illegal search involving violence, grungy sex and a gleefully funny turn by Bradley Whitford as a sleazy lawyer.

The other storyline flashes us back two decades earlier to when the lovely fresh-faced Belle and her partner Chris, an excellent Sebastian Stan, go undercover in the desert. Their mission is to take down the vainglorious Silas, who says sub-Nietzschean things about there being no god. And we all know there's no villain more sinister than a pretentious one. Here, Bell and Chris are working on their cover story in a bar when Chris gets her to give him a long passionate kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTROYER")

SEBASTIAN STAN: (As Chris) All right, kiss me.

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Why?

STAN: (As Chris) So I know. I don't want to look surprised the first time it happens in public - dead serious.

OK, got it.

KIDMAN: (As Erin Bell) Think you can fake liking that?

STAN: (As Chris) Probably, yeah.

POWERS: Now, I've seen "Destroyer" twice. And I've enjoyed it both times in no small part because Kidman gives an intense and immersive performance unlike anything she's ever done. She's really great. Still, I can't honestly tell you that the movie is a complete success. The ending is drawn out and hokey. The plot is preposterous. Any serious police department would have fired Bell long ago. And the action sequences can border on camp.

I never thought I'd see Kidman pistol whip anybody. Then again, that's almost the point. While there are scads of movies about crazy out-of-control male heroes - many of them in equally preposterous plots - there are almost none about out-of-control heroines. That's because studios fear that audiences won't know what to make of a heroine who does the nasty things that they'd endure in Robert De Niro or Nicolas Cage. Yet the reason we don't know how to react to a character like Bell is not that women are incapable of rage, obsession, violence or lacerating guilt. It's that while we've seen men express this stuff on screen over and over - you talking to me? - it's still so rare to see women act out in this way that we can find it unnatural, unsettling, even funny. Kusama clearly hopes to change that.

Working in the go-for-broke tradition of Jane Campion's "In The Cut" and the Jodie Foster vigilante film "The Brave One," she takes the archetypal story of the driven male cop and then deliberately flips the gender script. Bell's got a sexy love interest in Sebastian Stan's Chris, a long-suffering spouse played by Scoot McNairy and a kid that she spent most of her life ignoring. She's also unstoppable. Bell endures the sort of over-the-top beatings I associate with Mel Gibson's heroes. And like them, she implausibly picks herself up and keeps going.

If "Destroyer" sounds like some girl-power version of a cop movie, I can assure you that it's darker and more interesting than that. Although there are a few moments of loopy transcendence near the end, Kusama and Kidman rarely go soft on Bell. Instead they offer a clear-eyed portrait of a destructive soul rampaging its way toward redemption. In the process, they've created something memorable - a Hollywood heroine who doesn't give a damn what the world thinks of her.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new film "Destroyer" starring Nicole Kidman. On Monday's show, the consequences of a childbirth injury - pain, secrecy and a medical community that doesn't know how to treat it. Terry will speak with Hillary Frank, creator of the award-winning parenting podcast "The Longest Shortest Time." Her pain and isolation led her to start the podcast. Her new book "Weird Parenting Wins" includes some of the stories from it - hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "CHORO MALUCO")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "CHORO MALUCO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.