A Good Run
by Justin Stewart
Dir. Brian De Palma, Denmark/France/Italy, Saban Films
As Brian De Palma is wrapping up the chronological, anecdote-driven stroll through his filmography that is Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s amusing but superficial documentary De Palma (2015), he repeats his belief that no matter how long they cling to this mortal coil and continue to work, directors will inevitably be remembered for the films they made in their “thirties, forties, and fifties.” The last movie De Palma made in his fifties was the unfairly maligned, big-budget, Disney-funded Mission to Mars (2000), the box-office failure of which drove him to seek less traditional financing for follow-up Femme Fatale (2002), a masterpiece that most tidily defies his tossed-off theory. (Throughout the documentary, he has the dispiriting tendency to judge a movie’s success based on its box office.) Paul Schrader’s triumphant First Reformed, which followed a pair of ill-received, straight-to-video-on-demand Nicolas Cage pictures, is another glaring recent exception. But De Palma is probably correct that nothing he makes now is likely to lodge in the “popular imagination” like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, or The Untouchables, for reasons which might have more to do with cinema’s downgraded cultural pedestal, the ever-accelerating content glut, and thinned attention spans than with his own aging mind and body.
It’s a blessing, then, that the 78-year-old continues to forego retirement, even if it means his films end up unceremoniously dumped to VOD (with some obligatory limited theatrical runs on the coasts), as was the case with 2012’s dazzling and mischievous Passion and now Domino, De Palma’s surveillance-state European crime thriller. He is not still working purely for the pleasure of it, clearly, as he told Le Parisien last year that the production was a chaotic, “horrible experience,” and that he spent much of it waiting in hotel rooms for shooting to commence. Though he was quick to add that the final product is “very good,” this kind of rough candor made public before a movie opens amounts to something like a disowning. The inveterate De Palma proponents among us are then free to conveniently attribute Domino’s deficiencies to meddling or incompetent producers and fixate on the ample sequences and moments that contain the old bravura, the grinning dark wit, Hitchcock homages, and well-rode thematic hobbyhorses.
But it would be a losing cause to deny the film’s almost immediately obvious diminutive stature in the oeuvre—the symbiosis between De Palma’s still-vigorous stylistic muscle and the material is not here as it was in Passion, in which the glossy milieu of high-powered advertising was a perfect match for his playful take on new technology. The fascination with modern tech and communication (YouTube, drone-cams, phone videos) remains, but Passion’s zesty cat-and-mouse games have been substituted with a much drearier dive into ISIS terrorism, the present Forever War more seriously treated in Redacted (2007), De Palma’s Casualties of War companion piece updated for the YouTube era.
In Copenhagen on June 10, 2020 (per the specific onscreen text), two Danish cops, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars (Søren Malling), roll into a cafe, their chumminess made clear by body language and Lars’s ornery everyman bona fides established with his order of “just a cup of black coffee,” a muttered “I hate this place,” and a complaint about the price. Christian’s stubble, faded jeans and leather jacket are shorthand for his own less prickly authenticity. Lars soon suggests Christian come over for some of his wife’s “spicy chicken,” before a shot of Lars drinking alone at night, staring blankly at passing cars and lights outside the window, hint at a private despair. This condensed, rapid-fire character development serves to add weight to Lars’s imminent first-act murder by ISIS affiliate Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney), the avenging of which takes up the bulk of the film’s slim 89 minutes, but is also indicative of screenwriter Petter Skavlan’s comfort with the necessity of resorting to genre cliché to keep the action moving. The presence of the epically cheekboned Ebouaney pleasurably recalls Femme Fatale, in which he was mesmeric as “Black Tie,” and Ezra’s slashing of Lars occasions both the film’s first split diopter shot and a lovingly blatant Vertigo homage, with Christian hanging precariously off a roof gutter, though here looking up, not down, at his dying partner. When Christian does fall, it is onto a large pile of boxed red tomatoes, of the kind seen earlier in a terrorist’s apartment; these vivid nightshades (as unnaturally red as maraschino cherries or the kid’s coat in Don’t Look Now—incidentally also scored by Pino Donaggio and a De Palma touchstone) will serve as canny motifs throughout. Christian’s quest for vengeance is complicated by a partner, Alex (Black Book’s Carice van Houten, who has the pale, oval face of a Modigliani subject), with a secret, personal connection to Lars, and Joe (Guy Pearce), a hotdogging, cocky CIA agent with a Southern accent who wants to kidnap and flip Ezra for the agency’s own purposes.
Joe is able to flip Ezra because the CIA has his son in custody, and they make Ezra watch Joe’s interrogations of the child (forcing him to look at gory photographs) on a laptop via a video feed. But Ezra also has a beef with ISIS because they beheaded his father for a transgression, a fact established through dry exposition from Alex and also multiple shots of the beheading video (seen on computer monitors and even on a phone clipped to Ezra’s steering wheel—a constant reminder, something like Jamie Foxx’s under-the-visor beach photo in Collateral). As in Redacted, insurgents’ or terrorists’ savvy use of video and the Internet to spread a message of jihad and violence is a source of fascination for De Palma, an extension of the explorations into the propagandistic, manipulative possibilities of sound and image as seen in Blow Out (1981) and Passion, among others. A typical shot in Domino shows an agent monitoring and analyzing footage from various face-recognition surveillance cameras on a nine-quadrant video wall, and the message seems to be that CIA-style PSYOP technology is just a much better-funded mirror image of what the likes of ISIS employ. Watching one ISIS creation, an impressed Christian enthuses to Alex, in a bit of sly proxy self-indictment by De Palma: “Look at this video… even the way they shoot it… graphics, slow motion, there’s even a drone shot!” Indeed, all three of those techniques figure heavily into the film’s partially successful climax, a harried setpiece in an Andalusian bullring that recalls the casino boxing ring location in Snake Eyes (1998).
Aside from any scene that requires Coster-Waldau (like van Houten, a Game of Thrones regular) to emote in closeup, Domino’s worst moments involve the small band of ISIS fighters, led by Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay), nefariously scheming in various messy rooms. Skavlan’s dialogue is at its dumbed-down nadir as Al Din flatly describes their mission of “ending the lives of infidels, it’s a great thing… scaring the millions of others who see it live on the Internet… we fill their moment of silence with our triumphant cry, Allahu Akbar!”, as Donaggio’s score offers little Arabic flourishes in the way an “Oriental riff” was (and occasionally still is) used to emphasize and “other” Asian locations or characters. Counterbalancing these lazy-at-best bits of caricature is some fun throwaway acting business from Pearce robustly enjoying a salad and white wine in front of a prisoner, or telling Christian, “We’re American—we read your emails.” And there’s a steady rush of visual dynamism from De Palma and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (a regular Almodóvar collaborator who also shot Passion), including the split screens, screens within screens, diopters, slow zooms, slo-mo, etc. you’ve come to expect, plus new feats like a frankly startling and, in the wake of Christchurch, sickly disturbing video of a live-streamed massacre on the red carpet of the “Amsterdam International Film Festival.” Fettered by production woes though he may’ve been, it’s good to be reminded, during passages like this, how valuable it is to have an old-guard, unretired die hard like De Palma still around.