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The Vanity of a Trash Fire: Brian De Palma’s Mess Is Also Evidence of His Movie Mastery

‘Domino,’ the most discombobulating and memorable American movie of 2019 so far, has been disavowed by the filmmaker—but it’s still a symbol of his best and worst impulses all rolled into one

Saban Films/Ringer illustration

“The finale is the greatest finish for any villain ever,” Pauline Kael wrote about the capper to Brian De Palma’s 1978 film The Fury, in which Amy Irving’s telekinetic teenager uses her powers to explode the evil government agent played by John Cassavetes from the inside out. “Imagine,” she continued, “Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.”

Whether or not Kael’s hyperbole was justified, or just a byproduct of seeing one of her least favorite filmmakers (John Cassavetes) blown up from multiple angles, her analysis of the film’s climax as a combination satire-affirmation of the concept of climax—a metaphorical vision of orgasm literalizing the idea of le petit mort amid great heaping gobs of gore—got at something authentic about De Palma’s artistry. Not just his visionary viciousness, but also his inability to ever really hold anything back; if you had to choose one quality that separates the director from his easy-riding New Hollywood peers, it would be an almost pathological aversion to the idea of compromise.

The contradiction, of course, is that on a thematic level, De Palma’s work is almost always about failure. His filmography is filled with unfulfilled characters, unresolved feelings, and unhappy endings, which makes the excessive—but ultimately satisfying—money shot of The Fury a bit of an outlier. Kael’s praise notwithstanding, The Fury hasn’t held up as well—as a movie or a critical rallying point—as the bleaker, more resolutely downbeat genre pieces on either side of it in his filmography. It’s less iconic than Carrie and not as baldly provocative as Dressed to Kill or as fatalistically resonant as Blow Out.

Still, nobody who has seen The Fury will miss its deliberate, almost absurdly direct citation in De Palma’s new thriller, Domino—it’s repeated twice just in case you missed it the first time. But then I’m not sure how many people who haven’t seen The Fury will see Domino, because the new film, shunted off to VOD with only the barest pretense of a theatrical release, has been reduced to an only-auteurists-need-apply proposition. Six decades into what may simultaneously be the greatest and most frustrating career of any working American filmmaker, De Palma exists in a kind of exile from Hollywood.

There are all kinds of theories about why a guy who has made multiple movies that have made a lot of money—among them Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible, his last true hit, but a big onehas always had such a combative relationship with the commercial mechanisms of moviemaking. As hired guns go, De Palma was more apt to backfire than most: There is an entire book, Julie Salamon’s 1991 nonfiction exposé The Devil’s Candy, about the catastrophic production of De Palma’s adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities, a nightmare of clashing egos and agendas. Chris Dumas’s superb critical study Un-American Psycho excavates the stridently leftist subtext of its subject’s early, incendiary, and palpably independently political comedies to suggest an inherent wariness of the mainstream. In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s 2015 documentary De Palma, the director contemplates the perceived uneveness of his output while maintaining that he’s always stuck to his guns. A lightning rod for controversy who has been picketed by feminists, publicly feuded with his producer Mark Cuban about the editing of his Iraq War drama Redacted, and recently stated that Domino was cut to shreds without his permission—all but disavowing its existence and refusing to do interviews—he is as unapologetic as it gets.

It’s that confrontational philosophy that informs Domino and makes it probably the most discombobulating and memorable American movie of 2019 so far, a film whose fascination transcends standard questions of good or bad—or even of so-bad-it’s-good, a quality that’s very much in play throughout—and ultimately demands more serious engagement than it’s likely to get. (Early reviews have predictably been brutal.) If it isn’t an example of De Palma at his peak, it’s arguably an even more compelling scenario: a master battling against his own declining status and dwindling resources to try to craft something that meets, rather than exceeds, the diminished expectations of a marketplace that has passed him by. In other words, a C-plus B movie to stream on a Friday night. By nearly every conceivable conventional critical metric, Domino is a failure, and yet it’s one imbued, erratically but authentically, with greatness, as well as an embedded sense of personality and purpose that shouldn’t be confused (as some critics already have) with mere self-parody.

Howard Hawks once said that a good movie was three good scenes and no bad ones. The calculus of Domino is fuzzier math: three brilliant set pieces leveraged against long passages of mediocrity. Complicating matters further is the fact that Domino’s most unforgettable moment—its most conspicuous flexing of directorial muscles, as well as the bit that nods to The Fury—may also be its most unforgivable. I’m unsure about the value of fully spoiling it here; it’s probably enough to say that it’s a depiction of a terrorist attack at a European film festival where the shooter is livestreaming her handiwork via a machine-gun-mounted iPhone. It’s an image whose exploitative, video-game-style outrageousness—a swiveling, disembodied first-person POV, spattered with chunky CGI blood—doesn’t cancel out its creepy, millennially resonant immediacy. In the same way that the camera lens becomes aligned with the sniper scope, De Palma’s grotesque showmanship doubles as an act of self-reflexive commentary on the spectacle of both onscreen and real-life violence, plus the maybe-cathartic implications of visualizing a literal attack on an industry that’s stopped returning his calls.

From the amateur guerrilla filmmaker protagonist of his early films Greetings and Hi, Mom! (the latter of which contains the infamous and unmatched “Be black, baby!” sequence, which has to be seen to be believed), to the peeping toms of Dressed to Kill and Body Double, to Redacted’s YouTube aesthetic, De Palma has always integrated considerations of subjectivity, voyeurism, and the cinematic apparatus itself into his movies. In Domino, characters are constantly gazing at screens—laptops, security monitors, and weirdly anachronistic flip phones—and some crucial information is conveyed through these displays.

This visual gamesmanship is weighted by the attached social and cultural implications, both in the film-festival set piece and the conspicuous YouTube videos of ISIS member methodically beheading hostages: It’s one thing to comment on the contemporary weaponization of images, and another to yoke it to a narrative that styles its camera-toting jihadists as figures of pure malevolence, written and acted without even a hint of nuance. Strictly doctrinaire political interpretations, or expectations of typical political correctness, have always been losing propositions with De Palma’s films, but the reactionary aspects of Domino are hard to ignore and daunting to work through to any kind of satisfactory conclusion.

So, yes, Domino is problematic: You could call it racist or xenophobic without misrepresenting its approach. What separates De Palma from an inheritor like S. Craig Zahler is the difference between callow trolling and a more magisterial, lived-in cynicism about the way of the world. No director has less faith in heroes, and Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a Copenhagen cop who gets tangled up in intersecting strands of the war on terror, has a first name that’s like a joke on the notion of a righteous, crusading white knight. And then there’s the sinister CIA operative (Guy Pearce), who hovers over the action like a cruel and capricious higher power, using children as bargaining chips in negotiations with prisoners. “I’m an American—we read your emails,” he jokes at one point, a great one-liner in the paranoid style that hints that the film’s geopolitical hot take is less us-vs.-them than every-faction-for-itself; not only is there nobody to root for, but there’s no sense that anybody can win anyway.

The plot involves Christian’s hunt for a seemingly ISIS-affiliated killer, Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney), who, in a superbly engineered opening sequence, slashes the throat of his older police-force partner, Wold (Thomas W. Gabrielsson), during a botched domestic-violence call; after an excellently executed rooftop chase that quotes Vertigo (and De Palma’s own, Vertigo-quoting Blow Out) amid some hilariously ominous shots of blood-red tomatoes, Christian watches as Ezra is abducted by the CIA team, prompting him to investigate his quarry’s true backstory and, gradually, bringing him into the orbit of those evil, camera-toting jihadists. A key, De Palmian detail: Once Christian joins the fight, he accomplishes nothing of consequence.

It’s hard to say precisely where Domino has been sliced and diced in the editing room, but there’s a raggedness to the storytelling—to Christian’s discoveries about Ezra and also Wold’s extracurricular activities, and his (nonromantic) hook-up with another cop, Alex (Carice van Houten), who has her own personal link to the action—that’s palpable and dispiriting. The case has been made many times that De Palma has always been a more eloquent orchestrator of self-contained scenes than a great dramatist, and yet it hurts to see carefully prepared plot points get tossed aside or character arcs drop off for reasons outside his intentions. It’s also sad to see so many flatly lit sets and un-color-corrected shots or to note the phoniness of certain locations and the underpopulation of crowd scenes; the blandness of the acting, on the other hand, is less easy to blame on third-party interference. Neither Coster-Waldau nor Van Houten seems particularly motivated in hackily written roles that reduce them to chess pieces—or, I guess, dominoes—being pushed around a board; say what you will about De Palma’s pungently cheesy Passion but Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace leaned into their absurd girl-on/versus-girl roles with gleeful, trashy abandon.

I remember watching Passion at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and smiling through its ridiculousness while rolling my eyes at the same time—the half-affectionate, half-exasperated consideration we extend to our personal favorites. But five years before that, watching Redacted, I was infuriated at the way many colleagues wrote off what was evidently the most politically charged—and wide-awake—movie De Palma had made in a long time; its flaws were myriad (some dodgy acting and inconsistently convincing surveillance-footage textures) and yet it had a blunt, pummeling force that couldn’t be ignored—as well as touches of finesse around the edges that no other director of De Palma’s generation (or otherwise) could touch.

Back to the idea of favorites: I’m not sure that I could argue that De Palma’s 21st-century output actually equals that of his old pals Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, but I feel like his comparative marginalization—exemplified by Domino’s largely disastrous and probably soon-forgotten existence—says something paradoxically heroic about him. Even when they’re taking on serious, challenging, or even dangerous subjects, there is a level on which Scorsese and Spielberg (and pretty much any other distinguished, brand-name auteur you’d like to cite) play it safe; in a movie like Munich, the shock of the violence is enfolded within the overall prestige of the presentation. De Palma, for whatever reason, can’t ever play it safe, and cultivates a sense of chaos whose often ingenious choreography and orchestration—the prom scene in Carrie; the train station chases in The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way; and, yes, the jaw-droppingly weird and virtuoso climax of Domino, which involves a bullfight, a drone mounted with a video camera, and a guy getting kicked in the balls—is never quite fully contained. That’s why the hand that emerges from the grave at the end of Carrie, punctuating its dreamy reverie like pinching the forearm of a deeply hypnotized subject, or that gruesome explosion that concludes The Fury are such perfect emblems of De Palma’s ethos: He just can’t help himself.

If I could ask De Palma one question about the mangled object that is Domino, it’d actually have to do with the styling and placement of his own directorial credit, which made me laugh out loud both times I saw it; it’s abrupt, hapless, and tasteless in a way that is almost certainly purposeful, but could just as easily be a byproduct of an editor just trying to get a DOA project off his hard drive once and for all. You could literally take De Palma’s name off Domino—release it as an Alan Smithee film—and the combination of those voluptuous tracking shots, split diopter-style compositions, and throbbing Pino Donaggio music cues would leave no doubt about who made it. The way in which he has signed the film, however, seems to contextualize his ownership in as grimly self-annihilating a way as possible; it’s as if he wants us to know that only he could make a movie like this—which is true—even as great swaths of it have been rendered almost anonymous after the fact. To go back to The Fury and the unmistakable feeling that De Palma is reaching back 40 years to provide Domino with its own bespoke (and, it should be said, deeply inappropriate) punch line, it’s hard to imagine any critic—myself included—suggesting we’re looking at an all-time great finale. But I did laugh out loud while feeling liberated, guilty and disgusted for doing so. He’s still got it.