Films about modern-day terrorism — serious dramatic thrillers (Hotel Mumbai, 2019; Traitor, 2008) as opposed to purely jingoistic entertainment (Olympus Has Fallen, 2013; White House Down, 2013) — have shifted in recent years to either move beyond Muslim extremists or to approach the characters on both “sides” as humans with their own stories to tell. Brian De Palma’s latest eschews that newfound accountability and instead takes a serious but sloppy swipe at radical Islamists in an attempt at a commentary it never achieves. It’s not the only thing that feels half-hearted about Domino.
Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars (Søren Malling) are Copenhagen detectives who respond one night to a domestic disturbance only to find something far more disturbing than a squabbling couple. They find an arsenal and a man who’s been tortured to death, but the bloodied suspect (Eriq Ebouaney) they catch at the scene leaves Lars on the brink of death before being abducted by men in suits. Christian digs into the case alongside another detective (Carice van Houten), but they quickly find their efforts at odds with their superiors and the CIA agent (Guy Pearce) pulling strings behind the scenes. All of them, in their own ways, are racing to stop terror attacks being planned by the menacing Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay), but time isn’t on their side.
There’s the slightest tease of an interesting thesis buried throughout De Palma’s clusterfuck of a terrorism thriller, but time isn’t on its side either, and through an unfortunate combination of script and production woes it’s lost amid jumbled scenes, nonsense narratives, and unabashedly confrontational intentions. Domino‘s production issues are a concern for another time as the focus here is the film as it exists upon release, and while we’ll probably never know what could have been we can’t help but be disappointed with what is.
At a mere 89 minutes, the film never has the time to explore its characters, side plots, or main narrative with anything resembling completion, and we’re instead treated to setups and resolutions without much connective tissue in between. De Palma and screenwriter Petter Skavlan reportedly crafted a longer, more detailed tale, but what’s hitting the screen is a skeleton at best. It’s occasionally spiced up with the director’s familiar moves — split diopter shots, slow zooms, a wide-eyed approach to violence — but they’re in service of what amounts to nothing much at all.
Domino‘s central observation is in regards to the mashup between modern Islamic terrorists and the medium of the moving image. As Al Din says at one point, while there’s terror in the actual attack itself, the true power comes with scaring and scarring the millions that will watch their videos of beheadings, shootings, bombings, and more. These mini “movies” are as great a weapon for ISIS as their guns and suicide vests, and De Palma smashes the idea even further by giving viewers an attack from the terrorist’s point of view as she brutally guns down oblivious patrons on a film festival’s red carpet. It’s a movie premiere speaking the language of a world obsessed with celebrity, fame, and video entertainment. We watch via a split-screen as her weapon is mounted with two iPhone’s broadcasting both her face and the victims at the wrong end of her gun. It was filmed before a real-world shooter did the same in Christchurch, New Zealand — notably a white supremacist asshole who killed Muslims at prayer — but its effect is magnified by reality.
The sequence is both brutal and a little silly, but when it ends in immolation her handlers are shown cheering and praising god before moving on to their next target. While the film’s terrorists are given no depth beyond “infidels must die” the man caught in the middle is afforded just a sliver. Ezra (Ebouaney) is a Libyan immigrant whose own interests see him wanting to make Al Din pay for a past transgression, but Agent Joe Martin (Pearce) is content using him as just another pawn in America’s war on terror. We’re not given enough to feel any sympathy for Ezra — he does leave a cop for dead after all — but the suggestion of additional layers is almost an intriguing tease.
The filming of the attacks moves to its next obvious step with the introduction of a drone hoping to catch the carnage at a bull fighting arena — pro tip, if you’re trying to build suspense and have viewers worried for the characters on screen, don’t have them be assholes celebrating animal abuse — but rather than see an increase in tension the sequence feels rushed and messy. And speaking of optics, the bulk of the film consists of our three white authorities killing evil people of color, something the movie draws more awareness to by offering a token Muslim officer doing grunt work back at the station. It’s a lack of nuance typically associated with more purely pop action entertainment.
Domino has clearly been hacked apart and reassembled with little care or concern, and while it’s most disrupting with the narrative and characters it’s equally as evident in Pino Donaggio‘s score. It’s by all accounts a lush arrangement, but elements written for certain scenes seem to have been dropped over others with little to no regard for the action or emotion on screen. Like the film it’s accompanying, it’s a mess. De Palma’s intention is still visible here, and the idea that images of terror and violence are more important and powerful than the actions themselves has merit in a world increasingly desensitized to the misery and horror all around us. Unfortunately, the film as it stands does nothing with the idea beyond merely announce it, and rather than feel its power we’re left simply watching it.