Monday, October 24, 2005

Domino

Domino has gotten some of the worst reviews of any film that's come out recently, but these reviews were interesting in the way that they seemed to contain a vehement anger at the film, and a film that creates this sort of anger usually means it at least tries something different. The Fog may have gotten worse reviews, but I didn't see anyone claiming it was a nadir of cinematic expression. And all these awful reviews seemed to point out the things that made the trailer so great as the flaws of the film, so I went to see the film, and ended up loving it. This film is a hyper-kinetic pop art object in which narrative and character are rendered completely irrelevant and the shooting and editing of the film itself becomes the primary attraction.

There's a lot of films out there that end up being awful, but are able to string together a great two minute trailer. XXX was one of these, very quick editing, cool looking characters and a lot of excess. Compressed into two minutes, it was a cool experience. Spread out over two hours, not so much. Domino never relents from that trailer pace, the film may set a new record for average shots per minute, there's an unbelievable number of cuts and nearly every shot is moving. This makes the film an incredible rush, and lends an energy to every scene.

This film is much closer to an art film than a mainstream film, in the sense that the joy is more in the construction than the narrative itself. The opening scenes that convey Domino's journey from troubled youth to bounty hunter are the only particularly interesting character work. From there on, the film follows a fairly standard heist plot. If you shoot this differently, it could have the relaxed flow of Ocean's Twelve, or more likely end up as just a conventional thriller that's ok, but nothing special. Domino is a film unlike anything else I've seen, and for that alone I can respect it.

Domino is almost always backed by music, and that music determines the rhythm of the scenes. Even in dialogue scenes, there's almost constant cutting and you end up watching the cutting more than the action. I'm not saying that every film should be like this, I can respect the slow pace of a film like In the Mood For Love, but the medium can do this, and it's riveting to watch the construction of the movie and its total saturation of visual extravagence.

Thus, it's tough to write about the film from a traditional narrative context. The story doesn't convey the experience of watching the movie, it becomes something else entirely. I think Keira Knightley's good in the movie, anchoring everything, but the star is really the style. The opening credits alone are more exciting than most films, with the great spiralling dominoes and crazy 70s music. The movie constantly goes so far over the top, you can't believe it. The Jerry Springer sequence is so ridiculous, you've got to laugh at it. And the quick cutting makes it even more funny, because this ridiculous sequence is being propelled at such speed. The Tom Waits appearance is another bizarre one, and the intercutting with the image of Jesus makes it even more over the top. By the end of the film, I thought there was nowhere left to go, but the shootout in the tower outshone everything else with its sheer excess.

I guess what makes the film so good is that it really uses the medium. You couldn't do this in a book, it's uniquely cinematic. When I was teaching the workshop this summer, I presented the theory that the visual in film should be engaging on its own terms, apart from the narrative. Basically, your shot shouldn't just show the character talking to forward the story, it should show the talking in an interesting way. The best films are the ones that feature a great visual style and narrative.

So, this theory would be a rebuke to the traditional idea of invisible film construction, the idea that the authorial hand should not be present in the film. I think watching a film that is a marvel of visual construction is just as invigorating as watching a well told story. The best films combine the two, and perhaps the best fusion is the kind exhibited by Magnolia, which uses the medium so well, but also tells a story that's brilliant on its own terms.

Domino focuses almost entirely on the visual style part of film, with the narrative occasionally getting lost. Most Hollywood films are all about the narrative, and at this point, it has to be a pretty amazing story to get by with a weak visual style. If the visual style was toned down, Domino wouldn't be a particularly special movie. I've seen a ton of good, but unremarkable movies in the crime genre.

However, by choosing to move completely away from narrative and embrace the visual style part of film so thoroughly, Scott creates a film that's more like a pop art object. You watch the film, but don't really engage with the characters. And yet, the film is so fun to watch, that doesn't matter. When Domino's comrades fall, she picks up two machine guns and fires on some advancing mobsters, choosing to kill for the first time. In a typical film, this would be an agonizing moral decision, and the payoff of the revenge would be the focus of the scene. That's there in Domino, but it's beneath the surface, the focus of the scene is on the visual spectacle of Keira with the guns, and on showing that from as many angles as possible.

In some respects, the film recalls Wong Kar-Wai's mid 90s hyperpop period, and Scott makes extensive use of the so called 'Chungking effect,' messing with the shutter speed. WKW used the stylistic excess of those films to display the emotions of the characters. Scott doesn't really do that here, it's just about the editing, and quite frankly, I think that's enough.

Now, you may say, what about your review of Batman Begins, where I said:

we'd need Batman to be in some physical danger, and we don't get that either, or more accurately, we can't tell if he is because of the way the fight is edited. You have no clue what's going on because cuts are used to convey action rather than the actors actually fighting. The best action scenes rely on us knowing exactly what's going and being able to easily follow things. Look at the lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace, wide shots make it easy to follow the action. Here, it's all quick cuts and then somehow Batman has won, we don't know how. But, that's not just this movie, it's a problem with many action movies today.


So, how do I reconcile that commment with what I'm saying about Domino? Here's the difference, Batman Begins is a staid film that wallows in gray muck. It uses quick cutting, but this follows a traditionally edited film, and is accompanied by boring score. So, the quick cutting doesn't fit into the world the film has constructed. I would argue that for quick cutting to be successful, it has to be tied to music or heavy sound design, making it rhythmic rather than random. Batman Begins isn't a very pop movie, it's a heavy, oppressive thing, and as a result, you want a heavy, brutal fight, not a bunch of edits. Domino is a pop construction, and a result, the editing fits. You don't really care about the character, you're not supposed to, so let's just show things in as cool a way as possible. Batman Begins is worlds away from cool. Also I'd argue Domino's fight scenes, even with the extreme cutting, are still more intelligible than what we got in Begins, and a lot more enjoyable.

All that said, yes, there's parts of the story that don't work. The ironic use of celebrities, as with Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, just isn't funny anymore, and considering the possibilities of the character, the fact that the story is such a conventional action structure seems like a missed opportunity. However, the film moves so fast, you can easily ignore the flaws and just revel in what is onscreen. It's a crazy, hyper-pop film art object that makes fuller use of the medium than anything else that's come out this year.

I'm normally someone who uses critical response as my primary barometer for whether or not to see a film, but in this case, the critics are off. This is a unique and riveting film that is definitely worth seeing. I loved it, and you should see it.

2 comments:

a.mon said...

The direction, editing and score of Domino all take the attention off the misfire of a screenplay. The life (and death) of Domino Harvey is a compelling story that should have written itself. Leave it to Richard Kelly to miss such an opportunity.

Patrick said...

I would agree that the story had a lot of potential. I'd almost like to see another take on Domino's life because it was very odd to find what seemed like such a unique story compressed into a traditional Hollywood thriller style. However, the way the film was made was so riveting, I can forgive the screenplay failures.