Domino is exactly as bad as it looks from the cheap poster, but it’s not without its charms.
For the vast majority of his career, controversial auteur Brian De Palma has been the problematic Kylo Ren to Alfred Hitchcock’s Darth Vader. Throughout his stylish and immediately recognizable thrillers, he’s sought to follow in the legendary filmmaker’s footsteps, echoing and reinventing elements of Hitch’s ground game other directors only employ when they’re making a blatant homage.
But even in Domino, De Palma’s latest, “homage” is not the right nomenclature. He’s long since absorbed his influences to the point they’re an inextricable part of himself, so much so that his latter films, like 2012’s Passion, begin to reference himself, not his forebears. For those who like his particular perspective, any new taste of De Palma is cause for excitement. Sure, his devotees know it most likely won’t live up to his unmatchable heights, but it’s like when your favorite band is well past their prime. You’ll still give new songs a listen.
Domino is exactly as bad as it looks from the cheap poster, but it’s not without its charms. From the opening frames, with an introductory title that looks like it was slapped on in iMovie, it’s clear this won’t be the glossiest of De Palma’s works. The film follows a crime thriller narrative so threadbare it must have bored De Palma to tears trying to figure out how he was going to shoehorn in whatever cinematic sequences he’s been fantasizing about since the last time someone gave him enough money to make a movie.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stars as Christian, a Danish detective whose partner is killed by a terrorist (Femme Fatale’s Eriq Ebouaney). But getting between Christian and his revenge, there’s the reliably entertaining Guy Pearce as one of the genre’s best stock characters, a shady and snarky CIA agent who wants to use the terrorist to catch other, bigger terrorists. It’s a simple enough premise and one that more talented writers could have wrung more dramatic interest from. Instead, it’s like an ill-braced bookshelf made from spare IKEA pieces that De Palma has set several heavy tomes upon, unaware or uncaring as to whether the structure can support the weight.
Spoiler alert: it can’t. Beyond the simple fact that De Palma doesn’t care about this story or see a smart way to frame it, he hasn’t amassed the right kind of cast for his particular brand of outing. Pearce is the closest to getting the tone right, chewing on the scenery and availing himself quite nicely, but Coster-Waldau is a bore and so is everyone else we’re supposed to care about. As a coherent story and engaging piece of storytelling, the movie is a failure.
But as a delivery system for a certain sect of cinephiles’ to quench their unslakable De Palma thirst, it’s more than sufficient. The split diopter shots are here, as are the ominous, overhead crane movements and the curious use of perspective. For a movie so cheap and awkwardly edited, it’s still got some showstopping visual power and more than its fair share of enticing sequences. Perhaps the best of which is an absurd sequence of a live-streamed terror attack, where the director explores the cinematic element inherent to modern terrorism, and how even these principled killers must utilize visual storytelling to further spread their ideology. It’s a ridiculous set piece and one that also seems to equate terrorism with video games, but it’s exactly the reason, even in the director’s twilight years, there’s still a hunger for new De Palma content.
Hopefully this will not be De Palma’s swan song, mirroring as it does the embarrassing failure of Paul Schrader’s Dying of the Light. Maybe this just means we’re not far off from his First Reformed.