movie review

Ignore the Early Reviews: Brian De Palma’s Domino Is a Better Thriller Than Most

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Photo: Courtesy of the Studio

Underfunded, sketchily written, and heavily cut (maybe one reason the writing seems sketchy), Brian De Palma’s Domino still puts contemporary thrillers to shame. The story is standard-issue right-wing melodrama with some loop the loops: Two Danish cops, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, fresh from Game of Thrones) and Alex (Carice van Houten, same) hunt a Libyan immigrant named Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney) who killed Christian’s partner (who was also Alex’s illicit lover) — not fully realizing that Tarzi is being protected by the CIA, led by Guy Pearce’s Joe Martin. Why does the agency allow Tarzi to hack a bloody path through Europe? Because he can do (and is very talented at doing) what the CIA by law cannot: locating, torturing, and killing ISIS operatives in a quest to kill the sheikh who murdered his humanitarian father.

The script is full of little digs at liberals (the sheikh was released from Guantánamo; Denmark is so fashionably leftist), but De Palma doesn’t seem interested in the politics. For him, Domino is a late-career exploration of ideas that have obsessed him for 50-odd years. One is the hypnotic pull of subjective camera footage. The ISIS terrorists use filmed violence to turn people on, at one point sending a young woman to document her murders on the red carpet of the Netherlands Film Festival (“Ending the lives of infidels is a great thing. Scaring the millions of others who see it live on TV is something even greater!”) and planning a massacre in a bullfight arena that will be shot by a hovering drone.

Most of all, De Palma proves that greatest suspense (and horror) come from helplessness, a sense of impotence. Christian sees his partner bleeding out and the suspect escaping over a slate roof and is torn between his dual duties, but De Palma doesn’t quicken the pace the way most directors would. Instead, time stretches out, gravity pulls harder, and the air seems to thicken, agonizingly. The showstopper climax has the stately, “Bolero”-like rhythm of the first sequence of Femme Fatale, while also recalling the nightmarishly protracted tragedies of The Fury and Blow Out and so many other De Palma films. The heroes have to work out complex spatial-temporal equations at lightning speed — but slowed down by factors of two, then four, then eight, until your heart feels like it will explode.

What has pissed off early audiences (and many critics) about Domino is that the payoffs fall short of the buildups. A swift kick in the groin is unintentionally comic. A major character dispatched too abruptly makes De Palma seem glib. I’d like to see his full cut someday. Meanwhile, you should ignore the terrible reviews. I’d like to think the crates of tomatoes that are a running motif and figure in the plot are a tacit acknowledgment that the Tomatometer doesn’t always tell the truth.

*This article appears in the June 10, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Brian De Palma’s Domino Is a Better Thriller Than Most