Domino (2005)

Domino first published by EyeforFilm

The real Domino Harvey was born into a world of glamour, showbiz and high society. Her father was the film star Laurence Harvey (of The Manchurian Candidate fame), her mother was a wealthy English supermodel, and she herself was named after the Bond girl from Thunderball. Yet, after a brief stint at modeling, the young Domino rebelled against her privileged background, becoming a very successful gun-toting bounty hunter in Los Angeles. It is the sort of stuff that legends, and in particular Hollywood legends, are made of and it has inspired writer Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly to fashion a twisted head spinner of a biopic, where myth is always racing hot on the heels of a fugitive reality.

“This is based on a true story – sort of”. With these opening words, Domino challenges viewers to sort out fact from fiction in a furious two-hours-plus barrage of labyrinthine scams, conflicting narratives, impossible double-crosses, crossed lines, drug-induced flights of fancy and straight-faced lies, as the eponymous heroine (Keira Knightley) tries to convince FBI psychologist Taryn Miles (Lucy Liu) of her relative innocence in the small matters of a man missing an arm, a security van missing 10 million dollars and a luxury Las Vegas hotel missing its top floor. What follows is a riotously postmodern and thoroughly unreliable trip backwards and forwards through the life of a woman always vainly in search of something more real and visceral than her roots, even if she can never stray far from the shadow cast by Hollywood.

Domino spins a tale involving her surrogate family of kickass bail recovery agents (Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramirez), her birth mother (Jacqueline Bisset), her manipulative boss (Delroy Lindo), mobsters, casino owners, a mixed-race family, Jerry Springer (as himself), a mad Mujahid driver (Rizwan Abbasi), a botched robbery, the wrong choice of patsies, a messianic child, reality television, tossed coins, dead fish, desert epiphanies, the iniquities of the American health care system and a disgruntled worker at the DMV.

As a crime caper, it is complicated enough to make even Guy Ritchie go dizzy, but the plausibility of Domino’s story is far less important than its power to seduce Special Agent Miles with its calculated mix of sex, violence, drama and that elusive “edge” that Tinseltown so loves. On her very first job as a bounty hunter, Domino ends up performing a lap dance to save her skin – and in fact, her entire tale is the narrative equivalent of striptease, in which Domino bares to Miles (and the viewer) just the right amount of herself to satisfy, without ever really exposing anything more than surface flashes.

When Domino and her team are first introduced to reality TV producer Mark Heiss (Christopher Walken), his assistant Kimmie (Mena Suvari) warns them to use short sentences because “he has the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth”. Similarly, director Tony Scott has decided to match his film’s narrative complexity with a frenetic visual style that makes drugged-up rodents of us all. There seems to be at least one cut every second, the camera never stops moving, different film stocks and processes are wildly juxtaposed, titles and sub-titles explode all over the screen and entire sequences are played out only to be reversed when Domino amends the details of her story.

The effect is both to grab and to addle the attention in what is, even by comparison with the exuberance of Natural Born Killers, SpunKill Bill and Scott’s own Man On Fire, one of the busiest and most arresting aesthetics ever to be seen, as we are not even for a moment allowed to forget that Domino’s “true story” is, like any mediated reality, nothing more than an artificial construct.

There is little room for depth of character in a film as formally mercurial as this, so Scott has opted for a rogues’ gallery of stereotypes, with just enough quirks to be interesting. The cast is made up mostly of larger-than-life actors, especially Rourke, Lindo and Walken, as well as celebrities playing fictionalised versions of themselves (Springer, Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green). The biggest treat is a bizarre (and uncredited) cameo by singer/actor Tom Waits, to the accompaniment of his own Jesus Gonna Be Here, playing precisely the mythic persona (mystic prophet to the dispossessed) that he has been cultivating through his music for years. Diminutive, posh-toned Knightley may seem an odd choice to hold all these living legends together, but her insistent implausibility fits perfectly in a film so concerned with the traffic between tall tales and true.

The real Domino Harvey, who appears briefly at the end of the film, had, in fact, been arrested for allegedly dealing methamphetamines and was facing trial and a probable decade’s worth of imprisonment when, shortly before production on the film ended, she died at home, under house arrest, of a massive drug overdose. Real life is not always quite as pretty as it seems in the movies, but then this is exactly what Domino dramatises, with the sort of vivid dynamism normally reserved for action films that are far more conventional and far less intelligent.

© Anton Bitel