After the viewing of most films, it is hard to remember the names of characters. But I defy anyone to watch Tony Scott's Domino and not have the real-life name of Domino Harvey (1969-2005) burned into their consciousness by around the mid-way mark.
Not only is her first name used to furnish the title, and her surname repeatedly linked to her famous father (actor Laurence Harvey), but the plot also regularly stops dead for another glimpse of Domino as a little girl flipping a coin in a church and fixing the transgressive course of her destiny, while the adult version (Keira Knightley) booms on the soundtrack: "I am Domino Harvey."
The obsessive fix on Domino's Manifest Destiny as a bad girl is what secures the crazy charm of this exasperating, fascinating film. Beginning as a troubled child of showbiz affluence, passing through various schools and being expelled for her explosive violence, then graduating to a brief stint as a rebellious model (we see her picking a fight with another model on the catwalk), Domino eventually found her ideal vocation as a bounty hunter.
But this bad girl is no Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). In an underworld, criminal milieu that is ruled by violence and sex, Domino remains oddly chaste (even though, at a tense stand-off, she offers a lap dance to the guy with a gun to her head). While everyone around her, such as the overly quiet Choco (Édgar Ramírez), seems addicted or mentally disturbed, Domino hangs on to the solidity offered by her surrogate bounty hunter family, with Ed (Mickey Rourke) becoming her tough but tender Daddy-figure. And being a bounty hunter (as Domino frequently reminds us) is itself a paradoxical job, a way to act as if beyond the law, but just inside society's rules.
"This is Domino Harvey and this is her life story ... well, sort of." That is a refreshingly cheeky pitch from a Hollywood biopic, but sorting out the film's fiction from the facts of Harvey's life proves to be a difficult task for even the most assiduous internet researcher.
Accounts of her life differ wildly, asserting that she was or was not a lesbian, that she did or did not approve of the film's script. Some claim that her lifestyle was tawdry, others that it was heroic. It is certainly true that she struggled with heroin addiction, and that the movie airbrushes out this aspect. Instead, Knightley (who is excellent) plays her as a glamour icon from start to end.
Whatever the truth of Harvey's biography, the fact is that Scott engineered an unusual situation – convincing Harvey that an extravagant, convoluted fiction based on her life would be preferable to a conventional biopic (she did not live long enough, alas, to give a verdict on the final result). And it was at this point that Scott brought in Richard Kelly (director of Donnie Darko, 2002) as screenwriter.
The combination of the sensibilities of Scott and Kelly creates a curious combustion. Hovering over Domino is the success of Charlie Kaufman and the baroque conceits of his scripts for Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002) and especially the underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). But Domino is Kaufman-lite (when it's not Tarantino-lite or P. T. Anderson-lite): the main character's statement, late in the piece, "I won't tell you how much of my story is true", is a very weak version of the giddy, postmodern confusion at which Kaufman excels.
The outline of Harvey's quick-change life naturally calls out for a fragmented, fractured, multiple selves concept – especially when a reality-TV show hosted by ageing Beverly Hills 90210 stars (Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green) and guided by a raving producer (Christopher Walken) gets tossed into the mix. Scott, however, likes a rock-solid "through line" and he finds it in Domino – the bad girl with a heart of gold.
There is much in Scott's deliriously exaggerated cinematic style – the wild editing-flashes, the words wafting across the screen, the overpowering rock music, the aural remix of dialogue lines – which recalls Oliver Stone in the era of Natural Born Killers (1994), another tale of low-life criminals colliding with reality television.
While some have dismissed Domino as a jazzy MTV movie, I found its hyperactive manner frequently inventive and always weirdly compelling (and certainly put to better use than in the obnoxious Man on Fire, 2004). And, after all, how many action blockbusters these days are so earnestly centred on a woman – and a woman with nine lives, at that?
Domino is an event-film worth seeing and arguing about.
© Adrian Martin November 2005