So many pop artists have recently let political partisanship cloud their vision of fairness — and even sully their craft — that it’s understandable to have given up on a boatload of them. Will we ever again see a credible performance from Robert De Niro? Will we ever want to hear a new Madonna or Bruce Springsteen song? Will The Simpsons ever be funny again? Will Brian De Palma ever regain his power?
Domino answers that last question with a thriller plot, set in the near future — 2020 — that plays out global paranoia about Islamic terrorism. Copenhagen police officer Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) responds to a routine call that thrusts him into a global nightmare, from Denmark to Spain, testing his loyalty; his new partner Alex (Carice van Houten) is full of life yet sustains personal grief; Libyan immigrant Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney) kills to protect his family; meanwhile fanatic Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay) plots terrorist attacks over Europe’s changing moral stage (symbolized by a climax in an arena).
This is a second-tier, non-event film (a commendable rejuvenation for De Palma), and its brisk narrative moves as if on impulse. De Palma’s mastery of pace and composition makes the briefest image and sharpest edit count. When Christian confronts Ezra, their initial alarm is conveyed through European/African facial contrasts — film noir close-ups burning with sociological dread — that, thanks to cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, raise the movie’s temperature. Each character’s desperation and personal motivation are vivid; the global nightmare is conveyed with such quick efficiency that Domino plays like a B-movie dream of a great De Palma film. (The media’s hostility toward it suggests that Domino — which dares pinpoint Islamic terrorism — isn’t PC enough.)
For various reasons owing to our political and moral disorientation, it seems impossible for contemporary American filmmakers to deal with national or global crises. (Note that Domino’s non-American cast mostly speaks in American idioms.) But De Palma’s formidable technique helps him puzzle out this artistic dilemma ahead of his peers. His signature use of split screens throughout Domino shows such assurance and depth that it relays our split moral consciousness. Domino proves that De Palma’s relation to new media includes coming to terms with the horror of ISIS beheading videos — the new media depersonalization that is inseparable from the private commemoration in cellphone photo swipes and facial-recognition technology that destroys all privacy. That concern animates every scene. It’s total illumination of our digital-age crisis.
De Palma’s 2007 film Redacted was a predictably sour retort to George Bush’s continuation of the Iraq War. De Palma couldn’t get over the cynicism he developed in the countercultural Sixties, and his knee-jerk liberalism forced him to shortchange his sympathy with the film’s soldier characters, unforgivably showing them as moral criminals. With screenwriter Petter Skavlan, DePalma’s Domino premise updates Eisenhower’s 1950s domino theory so that the warning against Communism’s spread becomes an allegory for this century’s spread of rampant, even murderous, incivility.
In this way, Domino responds to the post-9/11 political malaise (as well as professional difficulties) that caused De Palma’s artistic slump. That he eventually equates Islamic terrorism to common human vengeance reveals his unfortunate, facile cynicism. Australian actor Guy Pearce plays a bad Yankee CIA agent whose exit line is as trite as his villainous Southern accent: “We’re Americans; we read your emails.” This juvenile political streak is at odds with Domino’s most movingly humane and cinematic moments: A road-movie motif from Godard’s Made in U.S.A., a cliff-hanger motif from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and a harrowing, self-mocking film-festival red-carpet motif from De Palma’s last great film, Femme Fatale.
These subconscious cineaste references intrude on the global nightmare as evidence that De Palma himself — unlike most recently weaponized pop-culture figures — might be rethinking the cultural decline that has become unmistakable in our politics, but especially in our media habits. That’s Domino’s real theme.