From The Parallax Review Vaults / The Movie Defender: Domino (2005)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Domino was for the “Movie Defender” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

Domino, directed by Tony Scott, is a movie that wears its ultraviolence and fashionista grunge, its Oliver Stone-makes-a-Harley-Davidson-commercial visuals, and its fake-nervy aggression like a very ugly but expensive tattoo.
— Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

The experience of the movie is like having someone hit you on the side of the head with a brick for two hours.
— William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Scott is a cynic with bad taste in style.
— Wesley Morris, Boston Globe

Over the years, critics have complained that Tony Scott makes the same movie over and over. This is essentially true. He always values style over story. His films often end with a violent shootout between several characters. His editing and shooting style seems to be inspired by the ADD-riddled mind of a twelve-year-old boy. Still, I find it difficult to fault a filmmaker for having a consistency of vision. Scott’s vision may be excessively silly and mainstream, but you always know when he has directed a film. This is something you cannot say about other mainstream, studio filmmakers (with the possible exception of Michael Bay). It’s for this reason that I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Scott’s films. No matter the subject matter, they are always an experience and usually entertaining. Such is the case with Domino.

The film tells a highly fictionalized version of Domino Harvey’s life story. The daughter of veteran actor Laurence Harvey (best known for his terrific work in The Manchurian Candidate), Domino (Keira Knightley) grew up barely knowing her father because she was born so late in his life. Saddled with a mother (Jacqueline Bisset) who was more concerned with her social standing than her daughter, Domino rebelled in a big way. She turned her back on her modeling career and became a bounty hunter, joining forces with Ed Moseby (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), a pair of hard-edged bounty hunters.

This is the aspect of Domino’s life in which Scott is most interested. He frames the movie with scenes of a bloody and bruised Domino being interrogated by an FBI agent (Lucy Liu) in the aftermath of an armored car heist. While the film does answer the central question of what Domino has to do with the heist and whether or not she goes to prison, it takes a very circuitous route to get to that ending, and that is where the fun is to be found.

The film features opening titles that declare that it is “based on a true story…sort of.” I personally find it refreshing to watch a biopic that is honest and upfront about the fact that the filmmakers are playing fast and loose with the truth. The screenplay by Richard Kelly, the genius/madman behind Donnie Darko, is a collection of adolescent boy fantasies sparked by the description of a former fashion model turned bounty hunter. If he had tried to script the film as a straight biopic, it would have undoubtedly turned into a leaden attempt to find meaning and psychological depth in Domino’s life choices. Just typing that description makes my eyes glaze over. By turning Domino into a kick-ass babe and plugging her into an over-the-top action film, Scott and Kelly cut right to the heart of the unique dichotomy that was Domino Harvey. The fact that the character of Domino bears little to no resemblance to the real Domino is not important.

That idea is reinforced with the casting of Knightley in the title role. The real Domino was an androgynous lesbian with drug problems. In the film, Knightley plays her like a sexy tomboy who harbors an unrequited crush on Choco. The movie version of Domino is never shown coming within a mile of an illicit substance until she is tricked into drinking mescaline-laced coffee late in the film. This divorcing of the movie Domino from the real Domino helped free the film to go off on bizarre, often hilarious tangents.

The most obvious and entertaining of these side stories involves Christopher Walken as a reality-TV show producer who signs Domino, Ed, and Choco to star in a program called Bounty Squad. This allows Scott to not only engage in some surprisingly well-done satire of the reality-TV trend (Beverly Hills, 90210 cast members Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering seem to have a ball playing ridiculous versions of themselves hosting the show), but also to take a shot at himself. Walken might as well be portraying Scott. He’s a Hollywood player who is obsessed with getting the most sensationalistic footage, no matter the cost. He is also described as having “the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth.” I’ve never met Tony Scott, but after watching his films for the last twenty-five years, I have to believe that is a description aimed just as much at self-parody as it is to describe Walken’s character.

What critics really balked at in the film was Scott’s super-stylized direction. Not only does he play different comedic tones in nearly every scene, he also goes for maudlin melodrama and cringe-inducing violence in the blink of an eye. Not all of the tonal shifts work, leaving Scott reaching too far for a point that remains elusive and known only to him. But for the most part, I found this unconventional approach to be entertaining, if not energizing.

He matches the schizophrenic nature of the story and tones with a visual style that seems to have sprung from the mind of an acid freak. Saturated colors blend with grainy film stocks and rapid editing to create a hallucinatory state for much of the film’s running time. While the style is flashy, it fits the film’s over-the-top aesthetic. It also helps accept the more random moments in the film: a shot of a Sam Kinison monument in Needles, California (complete with Kinison’s signature screams blaring on the soundtrack), an arm being amputated via sawed-off shotgun, a cameo by Tom Waits as a wandering desert preacher. This is the type of outlandish weirdness that annoys me in the hands of less experienced filmmakers. From Scott, it just makes sense. He’s spent an entire career thumbing his nose at the critical establishment. This freedom has allowed him to hone his techniques to such a point that he can get away with the surreal moments that make up such a huge part of Domino.

While Scott did not make a film that lets the audience understand Domino Harvey as a person (she probably never will be understood — the real Domino Harvey died of a drug overdose during post-production.), he took the enigma of her life and created a violent, semi-psychotic experience that celebrated the rebelliousness at her core. In its own twisted way, Domino honors the real-life Domino by never letting reality get in the way of telling a good lie.

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