Despite being one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation, Brian De Palma has been exiled from Hollywood. This has caused De Palma to seek financing for his film in Europe. Domino, the latest politically-charged thriller from De Palma, is a production out of Denmark and is arriving on VOD platforms with little fanfare, including complete silence from its director. The reason for the radio silence around Domino is fairly simple – the director had a troubled production and it’s obvious that his finished film has had numerous scenes slashed out by its producers. The version of Domino that is being released is a thriller that will many will find to confusing and lethargically paced – and there’s some validity to those complaints – but the film is still a journey through a number of De Palma’s cinematic obsessions. Despite being a minor film from a major director, Domino still features two astonishing sequences that could only be crafted by the heir apparent to Hitchcock.
Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars (Søren Malling) are two cops in Copenhagen, a partnership that has formed into an enduring friendship. When they’re called to investigate a disturbance, an encounter with the mysterious Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney) leaves Lars gravely wounded, and Christian is pulled into a deadly plot that has him crossing paths with members of ISIS and a ruthless CIA agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce). To unravel the web of lies that has ensnared his friend, Christian goes rogue with Alex Boe (Carice Van Houten), a fellow officer who was also having an affair with Lars.
Reports have circulated (though I haven’t been able to find any real confirmation) that De Palma’s original cut of Domino ran around 148 minutes. It’s obvious that some stuff has been excised from Domino, but I doubt that nearly an hour of story has been removed; it feels more like 20-30 minutes are missing. These missing scenes do hurt the film in certain areas. The character dynamics are rushed and feel incredibly incomplete, and this aversely affects the main relationship between Christian and Alex as they hunt for Lars’ assailant. The violent dealings of Ezra and his orders under the CIA’s Joe Martin are equally underserved with so much information seemingly winding up on the cutting room floor. Equally affected are the motivations of the ISIS terrorists, all of whom come across as nothing more than crude caricatures – but while I won’t defend how these Muslim characters come across in the finished film it’s another area where it’s obvious that important details have been slashed and burned behind the director’s back.
Even while some of the plot problems of Domino could be explained away by the behind the scenes turmoil, it’s hard to say the same for the rather lackluster performances in the film. There’s just no spark in Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance and his chemistry with fellow Game of Thrones alum Carice Van Houten is severely lacking. As the film’s main antagonist, Eriq Ebouaney fares better than his Danish co-stars, and much of his internalized performance is hindered by a character whose backstory has been unceremoniously removed. The real scene stealer of Domino is Guy Pearce as the highly animated, ethically dubious CIA agent. Pearce enters the frame with a larger than life presence that embodies American political arrogance, especially when meddling abroad.
Despite the myriad of issues that plague De Palma’s Domino, the master director has meticulously crafted two sequences that are absolute stunners. They’re two tightly executed scenes that no meddling could derail. The first is a rooftop chase between Coster-Waldau’s Christian and Ebouaney’s Ezra that brings to mind similar sequences in Hitchcock’s climax To Catch a Thief and the opening of Vertigo. As he’s done throughout his career, De Palma stretches out the tension to nearly unbearable lengths. Once again, De Palma utilizes a score by Pino Donaggio to amplify the tension before everything reaches its breaking point. The film’s climax at a bull fight in Spain is the other astonishing sequence of Domino, as all these moving pieces collide in a conclusion that once again draws out the suspense before its explosion of cinematic violence. Domino has its problems as a film, yes, but it’s in these two sequences that you can see why Brian De Palma is a singular voice in cinema, one who should still be creating high level works of suspense if Hollywood hadn’t completely abandoned the mid-budget film geared for adult audiences.
For De Palma devotees, like myself, there’s a lot of the director’s trademarks that find their way into Domino, and I’m not just taking about use of the split diopter. Domino features De Palma’s immense distrust of American power and influence, something he’s been putting into his films since his breakout hit Greetings in the late ‘60s. De Palma has always used cameras within his work, often characters peering at events through surveillance videos and here De Palma ramps up that fascination to a whole new level, one that just so happens to coincide with the film’s terrorist elements. If America’s great export is culture – mainly through film – a counterpart must arrive and De Palma finds that in using filmed events of terror; ISIS and Hollywood compete for eyeballs and influence in a world constantly evolving on one end and constantly unraveling on another. I don’t think these thematic elements are fully realized within Domino but they are present and give the film much more intellectual weight than the trashy little thriller with the horrendous tagline of “Murder can lead to deadlier crimes.”
Domino may be a minor film from a master director, but it has those two astonishing sequences that prove why De Palma is still a master. Brian De Palma isn’t working at the top of his game throughout Domino, but when the film is clicking to its full potential it’s a perfect example of why De Palma is often imitated but never matched. I only pray that some financier out there understands that De Palma’s talent hasn’t been diminished with age and gives him the resources to make the kind of masterful cinema that he’s still got within his uniquely cinematic mind.
A politically-charged thriller from legendary director Brian De Palma, the behind the scenes turmoil of Domino affect the finished film which is a minor film from a master but features two astonishing sequences that show De Palma still has plenty of cinematic tricks up his sleeve.