Domino: All Fall Down, by Scott Nye
It’s been seven years since the last Brian De Palma film, and it’s tempting to greet his latest as an extraordinary breath of fresh air. The director’s influence has perhaps never been more palpable, with seemingly every other Netflix thriller (plus a few theatrical releases – looking at you, Thirst Street and Piercing) desperate to get even an ounce of the effect even his lesser movies conjure, but there’s no substitute for the original. And soon into Domino, as the director sets a post-coital departure to high strings and blocks it around a zoom-in to a gun left behind, I was reminded right away of what it feels like to get the real thing. This is even before the stunning rooftop chase scene, the terrorist attack viewed as a video game, or the drone showdown in a bullfight stadium, bear in mind, all of which are far more thrilling and beautiful than the vast majority of what the genre has to offer these days. So especially early on, it can become tempting to yell “De Palma’s back, baby!” to the empty room you’re sitting in, watching one of the masters of the theatrical form on your VOD rental.
But there’s this whole plot surrounding these things with which one must, eventually, contend. It’s not like he’s just dismissing the plot elements, either; this isn’t Femme Fatale or even Passion territory. One must sit and watch other characters sit and talk, and for as many of De Palma’s talents that have remained, he has fallen a bit into the pattern many older directors do in this regard – a single camera set-up to cover a scene while we blow through some dialogue. Basically, we’ve got this Danish cop, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), whose negligence lands his partner in the hospital, suffering a deadly injury as they’re in the midst of arresting what turns out to be a Libyan refugee (Eriq Ebouaney) who’s hunting an ISIS leader who killed his father. Before Christian can wrap up the scene, the CIA nabs the refugee, spiriting him off into the night, before setting him loose again to kill the very guy he was after in the first place. Only now he knows the CIA is holding his family until the job’s done. Look, I don’t run the CIA, but this seems a little unnecessarily-complicated.
Meanwhile, Christian’s still after the refugee to avenge his partner, and he has along with him another cop (Carice van Houten) with her own stake in this game. In an 89-minute film that’s already a little overcomplicated, very little time is dedicated to their psychology, so we’re left with some pretty routine stuff – a photo album! – to fill in the blanks. Domino’s main preoccupation is in the way ideology gets weaponized, mostly here by ISIS and the CIA, and how the war on terror has only ratcheted up tensions and lead to even more death. Aside from a too-short detour that relates terrorist activity and propaganda to video games, the rest is fairly routine stuff that we’ve also had about fifteen years to wrestle with this cutting analysis, and there’s not a whole lot else De Palma can wring from this fairly limp scenario. Guy Pearce is certainly having fun as the CIA agent, and Ebouaney brings a fairly imposing presence, but there’s no specificity to any character, and none of them have the space to develop much charisma.
De Palma’s gone on the record as having a horrible time making the film, noting that the set was stressful and pay was long delayed for much of the crew. The rumor in cinephile circles is that the film was severely edited down, as much as an hour removed from the final film. That might be, and a longer version might be interesting, but there’s too much here that doesn’t work that could never be salvaged. Coster-Waldau and van Houten come off especially rough, never finding a note to play that isn’t directly in service of their character’s role in the story. They don’t seem to have an outer life, let alone an inner one.
That we are so short on new De Palma is a shame; even within this awkward affair, there are moments of absolute grace and beauty, moments that make clear he is still in the game and playing for keeps. We must hold onto what we can, and this is what we have. But in the long run, I doubt this will be considered among his worst or his best. It will be a late film most cinephiles skip while rewatching the classics, neither an odd curiosity nor a late bit of inspiration. It will just be something he did, that took too long to come, and gave too little of itself.