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An unrecognizable Nicole Kidman portrays a washed-up L.A. cop in Destroyer.

Courtesy of TIFF

The toughest scene in the new Nicole Kidman movie, Destroyer, occurs near the beginning. Directed by Karyn Kusama, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a washed-up L.A. cop who is on the hunt for a psychopathic bank robber whose gang she once infiltrated undercover. Getting word that he has resurfaced, she visits a former gang member, a dying ex-con who insists that she masturbate him in exchange for the intel. With obvious distaste, she does.

Did any male cop of film or television fame ever have to provide sexual favours to get information? Probably not.

And yet, if Erin Bell is subject to stresses none of her male counterparts would face, the detective fits neatly within the frame that contains many oh-so-familiar depictions of the exhausted and cynical policeman. Destroyer, a twisting two-pronged mystery about the gangster’s current whereabouts and Bell’s past connection to him, is gritty and violent and generally satisfying – but it is unusual only because Bell is a woman. Otherwise, it doesn’t break the mould.

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With Helen Mirren’s acerbic Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect as their den mother, female investigators are mainly asked to play the tough guy. The genre in which they star is not changing; all that has happened is a switch of gender – at least to judge from the two prominent female detectives stalking the screens at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

The other detective is Mike Hoolihan. The name is a provocation, or perhaps a joke, courtesy of the English novelist Martin Amis, who published Night Train in 1997; the character is a woman. The novel is a pastiche of the hard-boiled genre set in an unnamed American city where detective Hoolihan is investigating the suicide of her boss’s beautiful and talented daughter, a prominent astrophysicist.

In adapting that story for the screen in Out of Blue, the English writer and director Carol Morley has changed the plot significantly: Jennifer Rockwell is found murdered, lying beside the big telescope at the local observatory. Her loving father, who’s a local councillor and decorated vet, as well has her boyfriend and a colleague, are all suspects. Hoolihan, played by Patricia Clarkson, investigates.

Out of Blue is a police procedural with both metaphysical and supernatural elements: Intrigued by Rockwell’s theories about alternative universes, Hoolihan has visions of clues that are not visible on the crime scene photos. What the film doesn’t do, despite Morley and Clarkson’s best efforts, is raise Hoolihan above the witty provocation that is her name. She’s a reformed alcoholic; she has a troubled past; she has a gruff exterior; she’s a good cop and beneath it all, she really cares. Stop me if you think you’ve met this guy before.

I’ve seen Clarkson bring many an interesting character to life, but in a neo-noir film that’s playfully honouring the old detective genre this performance struggles to rise above the stereotype of the world-weary cop. Kidman has an even trickier assignment because she’s effectively playing two different characters, the young and hungry undercover officer posing as a gun moll, and the desiccated middle-aged woman destroyed by her guilt over how that assignment went wrong. Although the uncorking of the double plot in Destroyer is clever, the script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, doesn’t give enough room for the younger character to explain herself and her morality. As with Hoolihan, it seems she had a difficult childhood.

The older figure, some 17 years later, is a marvel of the makeup department – hidden behind Erin’s scarecrow hair, grey skin and sunken eyes, Kidman is unrecognizable – and the actor’s interpretation of the character as one of the walking dead is completely convincing. But most of her interactions with the world involve the tough-talking bartering of information; a subplot about her attempts to rescue her rebellious teenage daughter gives her a bit more emotional space before descending into the obvious lesson: Don’t follow the path I did.

The really interesting scenes are those where Kidman exposes the layers of disguise without a word; there’s a brief but remarkable moment during the undercover operation when the gang members are playing Russian roulette and she catches her partner’s eye, silently asking if they are going to intervene. There is also a pivotal scene where the charismatic gang leader analyzes her personality, telling her she should grab what she wants and stop waiting for permission to be seen. If only the theme of this woman’s many masks had been explored a bit more.

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Of course, these female detectives are a huge improvement on all those slick sidekicks strutting through the network cop shows in tight blouses, fighting crime without ever tying their hair back. But as the women insert themselves into male genres, they offer only tantalizing glimpses of a complete reversal of old tropes.

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