There are many things disheartening about Domino, a below average terrorist thriller that feels more like a misjudged TV movie than the work of an iconic director. Such has been Brian De Palma’s fall from grace, the result is a movie that can’t find theatrical distribution and is being relegated to various VOD platforms to try to glean something out of this piece of almost shocking mediocrity.
For much of the 1970s and well into the ’80s, De Palma was one of the most cherished of filmmakers. Like Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg, Bogdanovich and others of his generation, he helped usher in an era where the traditional studio system was collapsing and a new generation raised on cinema took the reins. De Palma’s fetish for Hitchcock was overt, and many of his films borrowed whole-hog from the master as blatantly as J.J. Abrams lifts from Spielberg today.
For a while this worked, and some have looked to the Stephen King adaptation Carrie, the sordid Dressed to Kill, the rambunctious Scarface, or the over-the-top The Untouchables to celebrate his gifts. Deeper cuts like Carlito’s Way or the cult fave The Phantom of the Paradise offer many pleasures, and De Palma also helmed the first Mission: Impossible to set off that remarkable franchise. After those were the silly (Snake Eyes) and the awful (Mission to Mars, Redacted, Passion), and then nothing since 2012.
Until now. With a film that retroactively calls into question a great deal of what came before.
Domino is fascinating in the way it’s bad. It’s like a lounge music cover of a cover song, a dual-layer reference where De Palma is referencing De Palma referencing Hitchcock. Ostensibly a terrorist thriller set in Copenhagen, the picture feels more like a student film trying to evoke 1940s noir using gaudily lit digital photography (from José Luis Alcaine, another master who should know better).
Out front are a couple of amazing actors known to most of the world from Game of Thrones. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Christian, a cop who forgets his gun while engaged in coitus on a resplendent leather-wrapped bed that is surely one of production design’s most strange finds. Carice van Houten is a fellow investigator and joins in a chase to uncover some ISIS plotters in a cross country race to save the day.
Along the way, we see split screens (a POV execution of patrons on the red carpet of a film festival – subtle!), split-diopter shots, and other trademark De Palma tics. Disturbingly, all feel downright clunky, especially the overt smash zooms to specific props in order to NOTE. THEIR. IMPORTANCE. TO. THE. VIEWER. All this messiness is glued together by a syrupy score that sounds like Bernard Hermann by way of muzak. Pino Donaggio’s plinking is either incredibly cheap synthesized strings or the most egregiously recorded low-budget symphony working in movies today.
The actors can be fine – hell, this director can be fine! – but in this circumstance, their performances feel stilted and unconvincing. Dramatic turns involving grand reveals fall flat despite the swelling strings and over-the-top takes. (Look to a scene on a plane involving a cell phone reveal for a particularly appalling example.)
I’m all for old dogs learning new tricks, but this truly egregious exercise in banal plotting and shameless stealing of tired tropes, both narrative and visual, makes Domino more deserving of late night ridicule than taken seriously as the work of a veteran director. The ISIS terror line is shocking on many levels, offensive not simply because of the simplistic way the tale is told but in the seeming glee of its preposterousness.
Domino falls down hard. It would be a mere forgettable blip if not for the pedigree of those credited. A fascinating capper to a career of many ups and downs, De Palma’s latest fascinates in just how wrong it does what it does. It’s an appalling mess, but strangely fascinating for these very flaws. Fans of this director’s work will find it masochistically intriguing to see what can be done with a low budget, low stakes project. When Paul Verhoeven left Hollywood, he made a masterpiece with Black Book (which introduced the world to van Houten). As De Palma travels to Northern Europe, he find little to recommend save for those eager to maliciously revel in the declining career of a once celebrated filmmaker.