Review: Domino


Line 'em up

Throwing a name like Brian De Palma's around can mean one of two things for hopeful audiences of Domino, the latest film from the veteran American maverick. First it could instill thoughts of "Oh joy! The master returns to his craft!" The second option is a bleaker "When was his last good film..?" With Domino De Palma proves himself to be a seasoned craftsman, and a still-devoted student of Hitchcock, yet the film's content seems to struggle with its own gravity, leaving us with nothing more than a "Huh?"

Director: Brian De Palma
Rated: R
Release Date: May 31, 2019

In Copenhagen, a routine domestic call turns fatal when Christian's (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) partner is killed in a struggle with the suspect, Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney). The killer escapes Copenhagen PD, but winds up in the stranglehold of the CIA, embodied by a swaggering Guy Pearce as Joe, an international agent. Ezra's ties to an ISIS cell operating in Europe make him a valuable asset for the Americans, with Christian, alongside Copenhagen cop Alex (Carice van Houten) on the trail of Ezra.

Domino's basic premise of a chase-of-a-chase might not surprise on paper or in practice, but its execution raises cause for praise and puzzlement. First and foremost, De Palma continues to wear his Hitchcock influences on his sleeve. The early scene in which Christian and partner Lars (Søren Malling) respond to the domestic call is drenched in an atmospheric color palette, with deliberate camera movement and the ever-present noirish score chiming in. Red lights hit from alley windows, with a glossy light reflecting off of crates of full, ripe tomatoes.

It may need to be seen to be understood, but De Palma has a real sense of crafting his images in many scenes, with suspense built in the most-classic way: Domino features an overt, orchestral score whose classicism might seem jarring with the very-contemporary, very-serious subject matter, but imbeds a sense of style to be flaunted only by a confident director.

Yet for its garnishes, the meat of Domino leaves a bit of an odd taste, especially following its abrupt, you-can't-be-serious ending. The aforementioned spiraling plot leads Christian and Alex into a world of sadistic terrorism, fueled by religious fervor. ISIS is named explicitly as the antagonists, represented by gleeful martyrs (at one point we see one literally licking his lips as a horrific attack is about to unfold) with the utmost seriousness. It's here where discussing Domino becomes a bit tricky.

Films--art in general--have the responsibility of relating to our world, and providing alternate perspectives or lenses through which we can view reality. Yet in its depiction of mass-shootings and other gruesome realities in today's volatile political landscape, Domino doesn't seem to carry the burden with grace. Featuring explicit violence in the enactment of these scenes, Domino commits in some ways but withholds in others. It's one thing to show brutality and insist it's being shown to make a point. But the way in which the scenes of terror are highlighted as casual plot points, with such one-dimensional villainy behind them, left me a little conflicted.

There's a certain objective quality in painting violent extremists as villains; people who murder and cause terror for the movement of their own ambitions are sick, and deserve no sympathy. But something so real, should they be reduced to such a simple caricature? In the context of Domino, a film which is, by all accounts, intended to be a serious, gritty thriller, I would say "no," they shouldn't. I don't need sympathy for the devil here, but perhaps a bit more development for our scumbags could have done, especially when we see their plans executed in such a grisly fashion. 

But is Domino worth condemning for "insensitivity?" The short answer is "no." De Palma has made a career out of ultra-violent Cuban gangsters and shocking acts of psychokinetic disfigurement, rarely without reason. Domino continues BDP's exploration of provocative imagery, only rather than utilize fantasy imagery in the form of Carrie White, he's ripping from the headlines we're all-too aware of.

No, not worth condemning, but Domino suffers from other issues. Performances all around range from serviceable to reading-the-script. Hot off of the fires of Game of Thrones battlefields, Coster-Waldau gives an appropriately-macho lead performance, his early banter with Malling feeling particularly lived-in. The terrorists, as we've seen, are scary themselves for their aloof fervor and detachment from the human lives they're shredding. Countering them, Guy Pearce's cocky American pushes for the CIA's acquisition of the ISIS targets, lamenting the leniency of "fairytale Denmark" and its courts. The ways in which Joe is characterized as the obnoxious, strong-arming American aren't the worst we've seen, but certainly Petter Skavlan's script could do with a bit more subtlety. A bit more subtlety and, perhaps, just a bit more everything.

At just 89 minutes, Domino is a breeze, yet the ending will leave you with a guffaw and a bit of skepticism. Obviously it isn't this reviewer's intention to spoil the entire film here, but Domino ends with a callback to an earlier scene of gruesome terror that leaves one questioning the intention. If there were a moment in its runtime that were to cast doubt upon the handling of such grave subject matter, look no further than Domino's closing minute. Any moral quandaries aside, Domino's ending is simply abrupt, and not entirely fulfilling.

It came to my attention after watching that there was a bit of a hiccup in Domino's production, to put it politely. While the product we're ultimately seeing is the one worth discussing, it's always worth mentioning and remembering that sometimes, even the best intentions don't come to fruition.

Domino affected me far more than I had anticipated, which I feel is always a positive reaction to have to a film. Whether the intention was simple shock-politics on the part of De Palma and Skavlan is not something I would dare to commit to believing, though I think there could have been a greater care applied to the handling of such a subject. Domino is a bit of a dime-a-dozen in the realm of contemporary thrillers, but it isn't lacking for craft. De Palma certainly knows what he wants from his scenes, evident in the careful framing and his persistent use of odd yet effective aesthetic flourishes. If only he were given a story to balance his vision.

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Domino (2019) reviewed by Sam van der Meer



Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy it a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.
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Sam van der Meer
Sam van der Meer   gamer profile



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