Deep Focus: Domino
Images from Domino (Brian De Palma, 2019)
Brian De Palma’s Domino, reviews to the contrary, is not a white hat/black hat thriller. Unfortunately, it’s old hat. This brutal English-language anti-ISIS suspense film, set mostly in Denmark and Spain, feels very 2015. The screenplay’s reflex plotting and tired terrorist vs. terrorist tropes call out for an international action/horror hack like Alexandre Aja or Fede Alvarez, not the great homegrown auteur behind American milestones like Blow-Out (1981) and Casualties of War (1989) and genre high points as different as Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Carlito’s Way (1993). Working from his own scripts, De Palma used his skill and imagination to turn the dreamy French-set film noir Femme Fatale (2002) into a minor classic and the icy Berlin-set corporate and erotic suspense of Passion (2012) into a high-style potboiler. In Domino, De Palma’s virtuoso gifts are at odds with Petter Skavlan’s rudimentary scenario. Troubled in production and in “post,” with a release delayed for a year, the movie does lay out Copenhagen’s clean streets like an appetizing bourgeois spread. But in its current form, it fails to generate the dense, volatile atmosphere needed to bring Skavlan’s pulp fiction to life.
A young-stud/grizzled-vet cop team played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) and Soren Malling (A Hijacking, A War, Borgen) register as clichés from the moment they stop at a café and Coster-Waldau orders two Americanos—though crusty Malling prefers plain old coffee. When Coster-Waldau asks the waitress to put some healthy-looking tomatoes on his prosciutto sandwich, the details are so obviously planted that we feel annoyed, not amused. It could be a satiric riff on American movie cops making a doughnut stop, but the actors are too stiff and emphatic for us to warm to their banter. Later, before the pair eat dinner with Malling’s hobbled, ailing wife (Paprika Steen), we’re told that the couple’s Asian housekeeper cooks spicy chicken. So now we know more about their culinary tastes than their personalities. Carice van Houten (also Game of Thrones) soon replaces Malling as Coster-Waldau’s partner, wearing a mask of woe that’s fascinating for 10 minutes, tops. Screenwriter Skavlan treats the most basic pieces of information about his dramatis personae as trade secrets. He parcels out would-be epiphanies like an amateur magician proclaiming, “Ta dah!” And there’s nothing up his sleeve.
De Palma frames closeups of Coster-Waldau against crosses. Skavlan has named his character “Christian.” I doubt De Palma wants us to cheer him on with a chorus of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” This Christian is far too thick and shallow. In shocking video vignettes as well as in ambitious set pieces, the movie rapidly depicts ISIS atrocities and the savage payback of a Libyan immigrant (Eriq Ebouaney) who despises the group for beheading his father. One righteous Muslim (Ardalan Esmaili) calmly explains to fellow police officers that the thirst for vengeance never dies in Arab cultures and that torture is required when murder isn’t enough.
The movie, though, is not as xenophobic as the first wave of broad-stroke pans would have you believe. Ebouaney evinces a strong, complex presence as the character who sets the plot in motion with back-to-back murders and stays true to his code: avenge and protect his family, collateral damage be damned. The CIA man (Guy Pearce) who runs him tries to keep his own hands clean while playing dirty. He has the blackest heart of all. (Is there a Dorian Gray portrait hanging in Pearce’s attic? He looks the same as he did in L.A. Confidential 22 years ago.)
In an interview with the French weekly Le Point, De Palma called the production “a horrible experience.” He had a vision of exploring a new “visual narrative. In the film, terrorists are obsessed with the idea that their actions are instantly visible live on the Internet or on TV.” The producers reportedly shredded De Palma’s version, though following the film’s release, the unofficial De Palma website “De Palma a la Mod” posted a quote from the director: “It was not recut. I was not involved in the ADR [Automated Dialog Replacement], the musical recording sessions, the final mix or the color timing of the final print.” With the storytelling in tatters, De Palma’s multiple views of a simulated decapitation video prove more sadistic than revelatory. The movie’s mid-section turns into a color-by-numbers pursuit flick. With little footwork and considerable luck, Coster-Waldau and van Houten steer into the realization that ISIS smuggles explosives between North Africa and Spain in tomato crates placed in produce vans. A detour into Brussels proves so pointless it seems written solely to bring in Belgian finance and tax credits.
In a pivotal moment early on, Coster-Waldau’s hunky cop, lost in a post-coital haze, forgets to take his service firearm on a 4 a.m.-to-noon shift. De Palma tips us to the ensuing tragedy: the camera moves suspiciously into closeup on the gun as Pino Donaggio’s score sustains an ominous tone. The cop lies to his boss (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) about leaving it in his car instead of his bedroom; his error results in a suspension, pending investigation. Here, and throughout the film, context eludes us. Is our antihero inexcusably careless? Or are guns not usually so crucial in safe, progressive Copenhagen, especially on an early morning shift? Such clear De Palma signatures as the camera hovering over the gun, and the hypnotic coloration that highlights those ubiquitous deep red tomatoes, come off as heavy-handed rather than sportive or spine-tingling. (Pedro Almodóvar veteran Jose Luis Alcane did the sensuous cinematography.) All these handicaps make Domino De Palma’s least witty or incisive film.
Whenever the plot permits, the director uses his sinuous camera and suggestive editing to portray webs of deceit that ensnare all sides. In De Palma’s most original, hair-raising stroke, a suicide bomber shoots bullets and digital images simultaneously, as an ISIS honcho guides her like a broadcast news producer, via ear-piece. And De Palma’s visual talent transcends stock situations during an arrest that devolves into a chase over pitched, shingled roofs, and a suicide bombing planned for a bullfight and controlled from the flat corporate rooftop of the Spain-based chemical company Dura. The director demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that he hasn’t lost his ability to make Hitchcockian tropes his own (there’s a playful reference to Vertigo). He creates suspense by manipulating time and space. He elongates the action as he cuts between floors of an apartment building or the bullring and the rooftop. He’s in love with the tense languor and escalating power of the bolero. Indeed, in this film, as in Femme Fatale, the score echoes Ravel’s Bolero.
De Palma strives to pull everything together in the manner of the “Liberty Day” disaster at the magnificent climax of Blow-Out, but the stripped-to-the-bone dramaturgy and stilted ensemble work make the film both harsh and morally inscrutable. After one of the police commits a point blank killing that takes our breath away, the movie comes to a dead halt, as if aghast at its own implications.
De Palma fans will sense his desire to create a parabola of doom in the manner of Fritz Lang: a painted “M” dominates a graffiti-riddled elevator. In Domino’s case, sadly, the “M” can only stand for misfire.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.