No, I didn’t sign on for this shit, Terry.
— David Austin Green, Domino
From the first time I met her… she said, “I love touching dark edges, I love going to dangerous places.” And I think she always saw a lot of herself in Janis Joplin.
— Tony Scott, commentary
Tony really thought this through and came up with a design principle of all these different aesthetics, different film stocks and hyperkinetic colors and the editorial rhythms and the hand-cranked camera and everything, that helped sort of convey the theme of the film, of all these different things crashing together.
— Richard Kelly, commentary
“This project has now been with me for 12 years,” says Tony Scott by way of introducing his film, Domino. He grounds his description in his relationship with the real Domino Harvey, the model turned bounty hunter daughter of Laurence Harvey. Scott says he spent years convincing her to let him make the movie f her life. He doesn’t mention right off that she died before it was completed, of a drug overdose two months before Scott recorded his track.
On a separate, intercut commentary track, writer Richard Kelly (who has not completed his sophomore project, following the bit of celluloid perfection called Donnie Darko) explains his own participation in terms of movies. Scott brought up The Royal Tennenbaums “as a reference point,” says Kelly, “and I didn’t really understand what he was gonna do until I saw it.” Indeed, it seems the optimum way to collaborate, by surprising each other. Watching the first blazing shootout, some two and a half minutes into the film. Kelly says, “The dog did die,” that is, in his first version of the script, but “Tony, ever the dog lover,” found a way for Chi Chi to escape. This even as Domino’s bounty hunting partner, Ed (Mickey Rourke), announces, “Chi Chi’s in doggie hell!” Cut to Chi Chi’s upset mom, looking especially wrecked in overkilled mascara and the film’s harsh grain.
Kelly sees in this smashmouth film the limits of knowledge or trust. (It announces in its opening credits that it is “based on a true story, sort of.”) He interviewed Domino too, he says, but remembers telling her that the result would be “based on a true story, sort of,” her life manipulated, on seeing Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering bloodied and tied up in a trailer, he calls them (or rather, their capacity as “reality show hosts” in the film) “a metaphor for this film being not really the truth. What you’re seeing is an interpretation, a fever dream kind of experience of Domino’s life… You’re trying to tap into her state of mind and her worldview.” Kelly also notes the relationship between Scott and Harvey, as it evolved over time:
I think there was a fearlessness about Domino that Tony really fell in love with, and he really embraced this story and embraced her. I think [he] was a father to figure in many ways over the years. And he kind of always remained in close contact with her when she was going through tough times. I think there’s also a fearlessness about Tony, a punk rock quality, that you really see in this film.
This “quality” turns visceral in Domino. Grim, brutal, and aggressively romantic the movie outlines basic facts and then takes off: an ingénue and model turned bounty hunter and drug addict, Harvey (played here by Keira Knightley) rejects her upscale but damaged family — her dad glimpsed here on tv in The Manchurian Candidate and model Paulene Stone (here called Sophie and played by Jacqueline Bisset) — and chooses a hard, mean life. On its lurid surface, the movie appears to celebrate this choice, loving the consequent violence and hallucinatory excesses, entangled with pop cultural references both visual and thematic. But at the same time, Domino indicts the seductive, frenzied, ferocious pop culture that frames and produces it.
And so Domino’s erstwhile minor celebrity (Bounty Hunter of the Year in 2003) is here turned into full-blown delirium and horror. While the DVD’s extras address the shift (mini-docs titled “I am a Bounty Hunter: Domino Harvey’s Life” and “Bounty Hunting on Acid: Tony Scott’s Visual Style”), the commentary tracks (a second one features some recorded script meetings with Scott, Kelly, producer Zach Schiff-Abrams and Tom Waits, dubbed over the film images, an aptly time-warping experience) are, in a word, brilliant.
When the real Domino Harvey appears at the film’s end, her shaved head, pale complexion, and large eyes hardly match the “sort of” version. Knightley remains perfectly coiffed, extravagantly made-up, and unspeakably gorgeous, even when shot through puke-green filters (Zach Schiff-Abrams notes more than once the thrill of seeing the “girl who was a model” turned scary). Even as it grants the film an unearned weight, the last shot of the real Domino also underlines the point: show biz kills.
Structured as a jaunty, uneven flashback (“I’ll tell you what I know,” says Domino, meaning, of course, that all you see is limited in perspective and history), it reimagines Domino’s life story as she explains it to exquisite FBI Agent Taryn Miles (Lucy Liu). They flirt throughout the interview, which is cut intermittently into the saga and shot in alternating saturated-color close-ups, but their relationship is a teaser to no clear end (though the image of Liu sharpening pencils with one of those little plastic devices is not without intrigue).
While Domino‘s focus is surely erratic, it might be best described as a reflection on media’s exploitative chronicling of crashes between the filthy rich and the dirty underclass. Domino disdains Sophie’s “90210 world” (to demonstrate, the movie shows her mom asking teenaged Domino to stop “playing” with her nun-chucks during a genteel pool party). Following a short stint as a model (“Boring” reads the text over her runaway moment) and her expulsion from college for breaking a bouncy sorority girl’s nose, Domino recounts, she took up bounty hunting.
After she attends a “seminar” extolling the thrills of the job, Domino catches the speakers — Ed and psycho-killer Choco (described as having “wires crossed somewhere in his soul,” and played by Ed Ramirez) — running off with fees taken from wannabes. (In a later scene, where Choco removes his shirt to wash it in a laundromat, Scott reveals that this striptease was not in the script, but he added it: “It makes me sound like an old queen, but I’m not,” he says. “This is all about an attraction between Keira and Choco,” adding, “Those are Tony Scott’s speedos he’s wearing, the old queen.”) When Domino blocks their getaway by literally standing in front of their car and throwing a knife through their windshield, the boys are impressed enough to take her on. “Add her to the equation,” says Ed, “And you know what they’ll be saying: ‘There go two of the coolest motherfuckers on the face of the earth.'” Choco goes along, as does an Afghani refugee and explosives expert they call Alf (Rizwan Abbasi) because his name is too hard to pronounce.
Domino proves her worth on her first job. Faced with the likelihood of a catastrophic shootout with a slew of inked up gangmembers who won’t give up the whereabouts of a fellow, she offers to lap-dance the leader. The performance is ground up into fast cuts and ogling shots; as Kelly puts it, “Tony gets the comedy” of the scene, though he was nervous it would “come off as misogynistic maybe?” The scene also underlines an ongoing dislocation of plot and fact and subjective views: she imagines a shootout, revises it with the lap-dance, and so the film gets to deliver both the violence and the sex, with not much commitment to either.
On the most obvious level, these two possibilities approximate Domino’s “philosophy” of life, that everything’s a coin toss, with 50-50 chance of survival or demise. More compellingly, the scene insists that nothing and everything is true in celebreality. Contracted by the WB for a reality show, the team brings along tv cameras on their adventures. The Bounty Squad is hosted by Ziering and Green (bringing with them all the horrors of “that 90210 world”). The film’s stuntiest of much stunt casting (Dabney Coleman as a Las Vegas casino owner, Christopher Walken as the reality tv producer, Waits as “the Wanderer”), the 90210 boys are also good sports: mostly they appear as dorks, abused and tied up, Ziering complaining loudly when Domino breaks his nose for asking about her “performance.”
The dilemma of playing yourself — in various senses — pops up frequently, as Domino blows off and embraces her scandalous fate simultaneously. A Jerry Springer Show episode introduces 28-year-old Lateesha Rodriguez (Mo’Nique), seeking money for her granddaughter’s operation (her gimmick is that she’s the “youngest grandmother in America.” This self-identified “Blacktino woman” argues, complete with charts and a pointer, that race categories are inadequate when it comes to identifying individuals and communities. As Kelly says, “All this is really off-the-wall, cracked-out commentary on the way that everyone is put into a category… There’s a lot of aggressive stereotypes in this film, it’s subverting them.”
Because and despite her “stereotypical” excess, Lateesha’s big heart becomes the film’s center for fantasies of redemption and self-awareness. Her selflessness (aided by Lashandra [Macy Gray] and Lashindra [Shondrella Avery]) provides a hopeful antithesis for the cynicism embodied by Domino and Ed, and made insistently visual by Scott and Kelly’s choices. Domino expresses sadness when her goldfish dies (which points to her own impending end), but the image is dropped in the mix along with everything else, none of it sustained as conventional plot.
What Kelly calls the “puzzle” of the film includes as well a $10 million armored truck heist, and a set of Halloween-masked suspects resembling and called the First Ladies, a bail bondsman named to recall The Mod Squad, Claremont Williams III (Delroy Lindo), and a gnarly upscale-addressed gangster (Stanley Kamel), who loves his inept sons to death. True, it smashes up in a garish, lengthy, last action sequence — that piles up a druggy sex scene, an arm cut off with a machete, multiple explosions, car chases, and shootouts.
Domino maps mythology, not as a means to heroic or sympathetic characters, and certainly not to narrative resolution. Instead, it blows through possibilities, nightmares, tv, desires and multiple realities. It’s not news, but it is hectic, gaudy, and true enough.