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The De Palma Basics: Domino

domino-trailer-de-palma

By Ali Moosavi.

I have been an ardent Brian De Palma fan ever since watching Phantom of the Paradise at the cinemas in 1974. That was 45 years ago; he was a 33-year-old director making his eighth feature film in six years and I was a teenage movie fan. Flash forward to 2019, Domino is De Palma’s 30th feature film at the ripe old age of 77. It has been a bumpy ride for him and his fans. There have been the highs (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables) and the low (The Bonfire of the Vanities). He has been accused of copying Hitchcock (Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill) and Antonioni (Blow Out), but I prefer to describe those movies as homages to the directors whose work he has loved.

Domino is a thriller set in Denmark in the very near future, June 2020 to be exact. Scandinavian noir crime TV series such as The Killing and The Bridge (both remade for US TV) have set such a high mark that any thriller set in these countries is bound to be judged against them. While these TV series have many hours to set up the premise, build up the various characters and introduce twists and turns in the story, De Palma has given himself only 90 minutes to achieve this. The script, by Peter Skalavan, is a pretty standard crime caper about a cop out to revenge the murder of his best buddy, while the CIA wants to keep the killer on the loose in order to catch the much bigger fish of a big ISIS chief. The CIA is represented by Guy Pearce, sporting a not-so-convincing American accent. He has, however, been given a great line; when asked about the source of his information by the Danish police, he replies: “We’re Americans; we read your emails!” The brisk running time does not leave much room for characterization, therefore we have the short cut, “black and white” characters of good police and bad ISIS, laced with greyish CIA.

My experience of watching De Palma films for the past 45 years is that the story line for him is of secondary value and he does not attach much importance to logic or loopholes. He is not out to make a routine policier. He looks for “De Palma Moments” in the screenplay. Moments that he can transfer from the written word to his signature scenes which invariably are very tense and violent, with sporting slow motion photography, embellished with highly emotive music, almost operatic in nature. There are at least a couple of such moments in Domino.

The first signature De Palma scene occurs very early in the film. Two Danish cops, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones) and Lars (Soren Malling of the Danish version of The Killing) are called to investigate a domestic disturbance reported in a building. While there, they discover a brutal murder and apprehend the suspect. While Christian is surveying the crime scene, the suspect fatally injures Lars and escapes. The scene that follows, Christian chasing the suspect on clay covered rooftops, is highly reminiscent of the opening of Vertigo. De Palma uses vivid, warm colours, accentuating the red (tomatoes feature prominently in the film), which is not surprising since the film was shot by Pedro Almodovar’s usual cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine.

The quintessential De Palma signature scene occurs towards the end in a bullfighting stadium, involving the cops, CIA and an ISIS suicide volunteer. De Palma uses his mastery of camera movement, editing and music to rack up the tension and emotion to a maximum. The music also reminds one of the Hitchcock films scored by Bernard Herrmann (who composed one of his last scores for De Palma’s Obsession). Since Herrmann is no longer with us, the great Pino Donaggio, who worked with De Palma on Carrie and Dressed to Kill, among others, has composed the music. This scene also reminded me of the Union Station steps scene in The Untouchables, which, of course, was based on the famous Odessa Steps scene in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

The above mentioned scenes appear to follow advice given by William Goldman (part of which he contributes to Paul Newman and Rosalind Russell!) in his classic book, Adventures in the Screen Trade: “The first 15 pages are the most important of any screenplay and the final 15 minutes are the most important of any movie. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theatre happy.” Though not classic De Palma, Domino, in delivering on these requirements, is at least a welcome return for the director to the turf he knows best.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

Read also:

Re-Working Hitchcock: Brian De Palma’s Sisters (Criterion Collection)

De Palma’s Scarface at 35: a TriBeCa Panel

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