Brian De Palma has a fetish for the histrionic. His films are governed not by the rules of reality, with its rigor and banality, but by the aberrant logic of cinema, that realm where spectacle holds sovereignty. Though a semblance of our world may seep in here and there, like a gelid breeze through a cracked-open window, De Palma’s films are concerned more with opulence that mimesis. They are shimmery and silly exercises in stylish indulgence, populated by lecherous characters who act not in their own best interest but in the interest of cinematic craftsmanship. Emotions and ideas are in service of the art, of that immutable, often imitated style, gaudy, glorious, and mottled with blood, those baroque set pieces around which expository scenes are wrapped like garland. As Pauline Kael wrote in her review of The Fury, “Most other directors save the lives of the kind, sympathetic characters; De Palma shatters any Pollyanna thoughts—any expectations that a person’s goodness will save them.” His films are rife with sinister men, skullduggery, outrageous instances of bodily harm, psychological unease, virulent and mendacious men; they are formally dexterous and sui generis, with voluptuous camerawork accompanied by Pino Donaggio’s bombastic orchestrations. These are films of braggadocio. The literary critic James Wood once likened those grandiose, anfractuous passages of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to the author opening his lungs and bellowing like a myth; one can say something similar about De Palma’s showy scenes, those ornate Steadicam shots that seem to go on forever, the stark dichotomy between the foreground and background in his split diopter shots, the persnickety compositions. Think of the oscillating camera as a flummoxed John Travolta discovers that all of his tapes have been erased in Blow Out; the lubricious and dreamy saunter through the museum in Dressed to Kill; that agonizingly long lead-up to the falling of the bucket in Carrie, and the split-screen chaos of the resulting inferno: De Palma imagines set pieces that can reinvigorate one’s faith in the power of cinema.
Domino, the filmmaker’s first effort in six years (and, one hopes, not his last), is a compromised movie, but it is still unequivocally his, even in truncated form. The septuagenarian endured a tumultuous production, claiming in interviews that he spent most of the 100-day shoot pacing around hotel rooms waiting for funding. Considering the problems that plagued the film, it’s a testament to the vivacity of the director’s style that Domino isn’t a complete disaster.
Two Copenhagen police, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his older partner-cum-best friend Lars (Søren Malling), are sent on a routine investigation. They arrive at the scene, an apartment on the nth story of a caliginous building, and find a corpse whose fingers have been cut off, the severed digits sitting in pools of blood at the victim’s feet. The suspect they try to apprehend, Imran (Eriq Ebouaney), turns out to be a member of ISIS who is, through torture and murder, seeking revenge for the beheading of his father (a scene to which we later become privy). Imran slips off his handcuffs in one of those beautiful split-diopter shots, his sweat-glazed face in the foreground with Lars unassuming in the back, the whole scene doused with a dreamy red, and cuts Lars’s throat before fleeing to the roof. A chase ensues, but Christian loses him. Complicating matters is a corrupt C.I.A. Agent named Joe (a sleazy Guy Pearce) who wants to use Imran as an assassin, a surreptitious plan that clashes with Christian’s vow for vengeance.
Domino isn’tas lurid or ludicrous as De Palma’s last feature, Passion (2012), nor as aesthetically indebted to its progenitor’s inexorable obsessions, and it’s riddled with narrative gaps which give one the feeling that the scenes hewn by handsy producers cut out important plot points. There are also issues with pacing: the film takes its time for an hour or so, and the first action scene unfurls with sustained tension, while the final 20 minutes of the film feel rushed, slovenly. But for all its foibles, Domino is still unapologetically a Brian De Palma film, which means that the aesthetic style is committed to its pursuit of the sublime. Early in the film, there is a long, deliberately-paced chase across the rooftops, an obvious paean to De Palma’s beloved Vertigo. (That the color correction apparently wasn’t finished for the film almost works in its favor here, adding an odd, oneiric look, as if something somehow isn't right.) The scene is replete with portents and insinuations of encroaching events. It’s this scene that leads one to believe that producers simply cut out swaths of the film rather than alter the structure or re-shoot scenes, because each shot, from that long, slow zoom on the gun to the way the crates of fruits are framed is so precise, nothing extraneous.
One of America’s iconoclastic entertainers/artists, De Palma has, for almost 60 years, polarized moviegoers (one must let go of old-fashioned notions of traditional character development and plot in order to fully luxuriate in his lustrous images). He eschews the bits he deems boring, flensing the fat and flaunting a recondite visual vocabulary, using a variegation of tricks and tools to machinate and tell his sordid stories. But Domino is to-the-marrow lean. The great irony of the film is that, by stripping it down into a brisk, bare-bones thriller in an attempt to make the movie more commercial, the producershave instead made it less commercial, since it no longer makes any sense, and mainstream moviegoers tend to focus on things like plot and character development, both of which receive the bare minimum of attention in this 89-minute cut; the resulting film feels like a supercut of De Palma’s favorite techniques and recurring obsessions. By trying to make a movie with mass appeal, they made a movie for the die-hards only.
De Palma doesn't delve so deeply into the politics of the serpentine situation (though maybe he did, in the scenes that were cut), but he does spend a significant amount of time and assiduous attention on one of their terrorist attacks, specifically on the way herecords the attack in split-screen. Only Brian De Palma would care so much about the filmmaking techniques of a terrorist group. As with the “Be Black, Baby” scene in Hi, Mom!, the use of cameras and camera angles in Snake Eyes, and the vérité style of Redacted, De Palma is most fascinated here by the use of media as a tool for communication, the visual arts as a weapon. Passion, one of his most concupiscent films,was the first film De Palma made in the age of social media, and technology/social media played an integral role in the narrative, and again, in Domino, social media has the potential to be poisonous, to be propaganda. The phone-as-camera also features prominently in both films. (One thinks of the teenage De Palma avatar in Dressed to Kill uses technology to figure out who killed his mother, or Travolta’s sound man creating a film to solve a murder.) At his best, De Palma is the consummate trash man, crafting out of puerile material some of the most delirious images in American movies. His characters have met untimely ends in high school gymnasiums, in elevators, at boxing matches; his victims and maladaptives are chopped up, maimed, shot, stabbed, immolated, electrocuted, exploded by telekinesis. In Domino, De Palma has fun with a lethal camera drone, which is one of the most on-brand things the filmmaker has ever done. Movies have the power to propagandize, and they have the power to kill.