18 August 2013

TONY SCOTT: DOMINO (2005)

One year after Man on Fire, Tony Scott directed Domino, and the vast chasm between the two of those films is telling. Of what, I'm not sure - but man, is it ever telling.

Domino, I believe, has its share of passionate defenders, and it ought to: it's the kind of movie precisely designed to have a small clutch of people whose enthusiasm for it knows no limits, and part of me dearly wishes I was in that group. Certainly, it's a pull-out-all-the-stops, damn-the-torpedoes orgasmic exercise in wall-to-wall visual and auditory craziness, and typically I am prone to like that sort of thing very much. But Tony Scott would have appeared to have found my wall: there is a point where I need something resembling content in order to get off on pure, abstract style, and Domino lacks that content. To say the least.

The film opens with an absolutely perfect pair of title cards: "This is based on a true story." "Sort of." Perfect, that is to say, in that it very much establishes what sort of mood we can expect the next two hours and change to play around in: it establishes a sense of snotty irony that is absolutely caked over every inch of the feature, with flippant attitude standing in for wit. It's not, "Most of what follows is true", is what I'm saying. Anyway, the sort-of true story is that of Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), a bounty hunter living and mostly working in Southern California, where her beauty and ruthless efficiency set her apart in a field dominated by burly male ex-cons. Domino was the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, who died when she was four years old; she spent some time as a model before a lifelong affection for violent adventure mixed with what the film promises us was a strange case of Daddy Issues sent her into her most curious career. It was because of the press accumulating around such an offbeat character that Scott first sought her out, striking up a friendship that would last the last ten years of her life or thereabouts, and convincing both of them that he absolutely had to make a movie about her exploits; it finally came out mere months after Harvey's death by drug overdose.

Now, what about Domino Harvey? That is not a question I am able to answer, for it is not something the film itself seems to have quite settled on. It is an unbelievably significant bit of trivia that Scott, who had been unable to fashion Harvey's life into a meaningful dramatic narrative despite years of trying, was inspired to hire Richard Kelly as screenwriter on the strength of reading his script for Southland Tales. A film that I will happily admit to enjoying for the sprawling, over-ambitious mess that it is, though I'm inclined to say that the script is the single worst element of the whole entire project, and hiring somebody to write you a movie specifically on the strength of that script is as much as saying, "Here. I would like for you to create an absolutely insane fucking disaster for me".

Sure enough, Domino is that insane fucking disaster. There's a plot - there's definitely a plot - there's so much plot that the whole movie threatens to choke to death on plot. But there's not much that happens. Basically, Domino, her boss Ed Moseby (Mickey Rourke, perfectly cast as a drugged-out man mountain), and her co-worker and semi-romantic-interest Choco (Édgar Ramírez) tackle a few bounty hunting cases sent their way by one Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo), until they eventual get to That One Case, the one that was fucked-up from the word "go" by secrets and lies, in which the merry band of hunters end up on the wrong side of the law and the DMV, and Domino ends up relating the whole plot to FBI Agent Taryn Mills (Lucy Liu), from the omnipotent perspective of a framing narrative.

If you were to go through the events of the movie in a simple way, it's all very straightforward, but it was massively important to Scott and Kelly that it was not straightforward, and so the story (for which Steve Barancik was also credited, though Kelly never read his draft) hops back and forth between the framework and a variety of barely-established moments in the past, constantly shifting how much Domino "knows" about what went on when she wasn't present, and using Knightley's voiceover narration as a tool for constantly abstracting the content of the plot while saturating it in so much irony that it abandons having any baseline reality. And that's without bringing the style in, but let's hold off on that for a second. We're still at the point where, at the level of storytelling, Domino is actively trying to make itself more complicated than it is, solely to be messier and harder to parse.

Once we bring in style, well, damn. Superficially, this is apparently a continuation of what Scott was up to with Man on Fire, shot by his frequent collaborator Dan Mindel instead of Paul Cameron, which may or may not have anything to do with anything. The difference being that, for all that Man on Fire was a barrage, a constant assault that was great at knocking the viewer around like a ragdoll, it had a clear purpose: it was evoking the subjective perspective of its main character, aggressively visualising his emotions and the things he noticed and thought about. If that's going on in Domino, I can't track it. Sometimes it's subjective, stuck inside Domino's head. Frequently it's not. Either way, it's largely arbitrary: the sound hops around from speaker to speaker, sometimes with voices booming and sometimes with voices muffled and tinny; the film is constantly bathed in a putrescent yellow that couldn't look more like urine if Scott and Mindel had literally pissed on the camera negative; shots cut together with more regard for speed than coherency or even graphic compatibility; and the make-up that Knightley has been saddled with makes her look like a punk rock raccoon.

If anything, I suppose what the film is about is creating a visual corollary to the experience of living through its plot, though that same plot is so heightened that it's not fair to say that it corresponds to anything experienced by human beings in the real world. Still, it's bombastic and constantly keeps you from being relaxed in any way, just like the chaotic mess that the characters are living through, thanks to filmmakers who went out of their way to fabricate such a mess. That said, while visual anarchy can be starling and bracing in chunks, Domino quickly settles into a one-tone-fits-all groove that's desperately wearying: 20 minutes of the movie, with perhaps a slightly less florid approach to narrative (or, alternatively, no narrative at all) could be excitingly revolutionary, but two hours of it is grueling and tedious. It's style, but it's not an aesthetic: that implies some level of choice and concern for the shift in effect from moment to moment. Domino is a feature-length exercise in watching Tony Scott, totally unhinged, vomiting the id right onto a movie. I don't know whose id - his? Domino Harvey's? The character in the movie based on her? And nothing in this pulverising mess, however energetic and fast-paced, makes me want to find out.

4 comments:

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

I also wish I could be one of this movie's defenders but, alas I have much the same problems with it as you do.

Actually, one of the reasons I sought it out in the first place is because I'm one of those weirdos who has unlimited enthusiasm for Richard Kelly's mighty Southland Tales. I'm such a fan that I've even read the original first draft of the screenplay, which I'm guessing is the one that Tony Scott read.
The original draft is actually far more coherent and accessible, well.... relatively, than the finished film and doesn't include some of the more outlandish sci-fi concepts. Still doesn't really explain why Tony Scott thought Richard Kelly would be the right choice for a biopic about Domino Harvey and now that he's gone I guess we'll never know...

Tim said...

Hey there, haven't seen you around here in a while, welcome back!

I didn't know that the Southland Tales first draft script was available to read, but I'm going to have to seek it out now. I can't call myself a "fan" of that movie, but it fascinated the ever-loving hell out of me, and I'd love to know more about where it came from.

Mike Gibson said...

If nothing else, this movie gives me a reason to occasionally yell "I AM A BOUNTY HUNTAH!" with an English accent, so there's that.

Neil Fulwood said...

"The film is constantly bathed in a putrescent yellow that couldn't look more like urine if Scott and Mindel had literally pissed on the camera negative."

Thanks for clarifying this. I've seen the film only once and through the mother of all hangovers and I genuinely thought my vision had been affected.