Patrick Preziosi on Brian De Palma’s ‘Domino’ (2019)
Now at 78 years old, marooned in a film industry that seems to have turned a blind eye to his accomplished technical craft, director Brian De Palma has somehow made a film that exists best on its own terms but also requires contextualisation to truly forgive its (recurring) potholes. The production of Domino has been referred to by its creator as torturous and underfunded, a “horrible experience” in which he spent much of the time sequestered in his hotel room until he was needed. With its runtime shaved down to 89 minutes, and the final result being unceremoniously dumped onto limited release and VOD, Domino could very easily fade into the ether of half-baked espionage procedurals and bloodless prestige television. What saves it is the prevalence of its welcome De Palma-isms, and that its — for better or for worse — a brashly 21st-century project, which suggests new direction for a director working since 1960.
Interestingly enough, Domino‘s thematic concerns aren’t necessarily aligned with De Palma’s “trash” aesthetic; it’s a border-crossing Euro-thriller, mostly forgoing moral queasiness for a plot that hinges on the pretty straightforward police work of its Danish protagonists Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Alex (Carice van Houten), on the relatively noble pursuit of avenging the murder of the former’s partner, Lars (Sørren Malling).
Lars was murdered during a seemingly routine patrol call. Denoted on screen as June 10th, 2020, him and Christian apprehend ISIS agent Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney) in a decrepit Copenhagen apartment complex. But, as we’ve learned in the foreboding, tantalising slow-zoom of a prior scene, Christian’s forgotten his gun and is forced to borrow Lars’ to sweep the building, leaving his partner unprotected with Ezra, whose more than handy with a knife up his sleeve. Framed in a split-diopter shot with Lars calling the arrest in, Ezra wriggles free and cuts his captor’s throat. The sequence is augmented by the intriguing flatness of José Luis Alcaine’s (frequent Pedro Almodóvar collaborator) digital cinematography, which finds a spiritual predecessor in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).
Within these establishing scenes, we’re firmly planted in De Palma territory, with a tension-ridden rooftop chase in the vein of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) to boot. However, the film’s paper-thin emotional arc is already hampered by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dinner scene prior between Lars, his wife, and Christian that attempts to showcase the deep bond that these men have, but plays as mere filler in a film that’s already had a significant portion cut. But what follows the aforementioned sequence of disorientating violence and pursuit salvages Domino‘s bland characterisation, paving over it with a serpentine narrative of different visual motifs and double-crossings that, surprisingly, offers a dichotomous portrait of contemporary surveillance as both a means of exploitation and of liberation.
After Christian and Ezra both fall from the roof they precariously traverse (onto a bed of sanguine tomatoes, which figure greatly later on), in his post-fall haze Christian sees Ezra extracted by men. These men are CIA agents, led by Guy Pearce’s cocksure, Southern-accented Joe, in one of the few performances that don’t rely on misguided emotiveness (in contrast, a scene in which Christian and Alex learn of Lars’ passing is especially egregious); his line-reading of “We’re Americans — we read your emails,” is so on-the-nose that it works. Joe successfully flips Ezra — he’s kidnapped his family, for one — into hunting known ISIS operant Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay). Ezra goes after Salah, Christian and Alex are after Ezra, and Joe is behind the scenes of it all; these intersections are what pushes the film towards its climax, and allow De Palma to play with subjective perspectives of his characters.
Unfortunately, Domino is a film that feels constantly at odds with itself, though De Palma is able to act as a mostly successful binding force. The film’s oscillation in quality, unfortunately, plays out in the mold of the director’s own beloved parallel editing and split-screens: one unsettling piece here, one groan-inducing expository sequence there, the latter attributable to Petter Skavlan‘s impatient screenplay. Ezra’s complex relationship with his own radical ideals — though he himself is an ISIS insurgent, propelled by rage against the beheading of his father by the terrorist group — would be enough to carry the film yet Salah’s own motives don’t grow beyond the rote killing of “infidels”, and a few pepperings of “allahu akbar” here and there. So, when De Palma and Petter link one of the film’s most razor-sharp sequences — an ISIS underling live streaming their massacre of a film festival’s red carpet in split screen, with one camera perched on the gun and the other trained on her face — to Salah’s predictable ideas of jihad, it can’t help but feel subsequently like a deflation once the initial shock wears off, albeit prescient in the age of internet voyeurism and Christchurch.
Domino culminates in a slow-motion final run-in between Christian and Alex with Salah and his men, and although it somewhat mirrors the labyrinthine casino of Snake Eyes (1998), while also resulting in some gleefully ridiculous gore, it fizzles out. Though it’s tempting to compare it to past De Palma high-water marks, Domino in fact mirrors another unjustly maligned recent film by an equally consistent director — Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015). The seedlings of Domino suggest that beyond the film presented, it could’ve reached the heights of Mann’s equally technology-minded film. Yet with De Palma attached, such suggested brilliance is at least somewhat preserved.
Domino is showing in select cinemas now.