Opening Friday, Jan. 18

The bleak and bludgeoning cop drama Destroyer features Nicole Kidman in a mode we’ve never seen. Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), it pushes the violent antihero template into startling new territories and provides a brilliant, if unsettling, cinematic experience.

Kidman is unrecognizable in the role of Erin Bell, an LA detective who looks like she just crawled back from the grave and straight to the bar. Since an undercover assignment went extremely wrong seventeen years ago, Erin has been improvising a kind of long-form suicide, punishing herself with dedicated cruelty. Through a tangled series of narrative switchbacks, we learn what happened then—and why she’s gone full psycho now in pursuit of a demonic LA crime figure.

Kusama has delivered an entirely effective piece of filmmaking, but wow, it’s rough on the stomach. The violence is designed, in both image and sound, to produce maximum visceral effect. That’s the right choice for a film this heavy, but know that this isn’t a cartoon heist-film shoot-‘em-up, or even a glammed-out bullet fest in the key of Michael Mann. The physical violence is driven by severe emotional violence, and that’s where Kidman does the most damage. Her transformation is just this side of impossible.

When filmmakers put their characters (and their audience) through this kind of trauma, they’re obliged to deliver a worthwhile payoff. Kusama and Kidman provide it with a family subplot concerning Erin’s teenage daughter, which doesn’t fully resolve until the final scenes. Several thematic knots untangle in a procession of surprisingly graceful images. The harrowing journey becomes worth it. I’ve come to truly detest most violence in most movies, but Destroyer takes its violence seriously, and that makes all the difference.