Studio: Orion Classics
Director: Mike P. Nelson
Writer: Mike P. Nelson
Producer: Gianni Nunnari, Shannon Gaulding
Stars: Kate Bosworth, Tyler Hoechlin, Sonoya Mizuno, Lance Reddick, David Dastmalchian, Brad Leland, Dana Gourrier, Lee Perkins, Thomas Francis Murphy
In a post-apocalyptic near future, a troubled husband and wife on their way to Milwaukee fight for survival against lawless gangs.
“The Domestics” only employs a small bit of backstory to sew the basics for its backdrop. Some indeterminate time ago, airplanes crop-dusted black clouds across America that fatally poisoned most of the population. Who and why are obvious questions, although the answers aren’t important to this slice of story. All that matters is that most survivors split into savage factions themed like gangs from Walter Hill’s “The Warriors.”
Nina and Mark already had a problematic marriage running a rough road toward divorce. Forced to fend for themselves as unaligned ‘Domestics,’ the couple now faces an even rougher road ahead as they plot a path to Milwaukee to find Nina’s parents.
Along the way, Mark and Nina find themselves in situations unfamiliar to a suburban husband and wife, yet very familiar to anyone seasoned on post-apocalyptic fiction. A popular “it’s like” correctly describes “The Domestics” as a milder “Mad Max” in a world where “The Purge” (review here) essentially takes place 24/7. The film also has an episodic vibe akin to “Stake Land” (review here) or a condensed season of “The Walking Dead” as Mark and Nina hole up in various deserted houses, scavenge the already empty shelves of an abandoned grocery store, and encounter the usual assortment of thieves, rapists, murderers, and weirdos.
Writer/director Mike P. Nelson understandably wants his movie to appear cinematic while incorporating unique fiction into a familiar setting. The roadblock Nelson smashes into however is that the personality behind his premise doesn’t have the zip on its lip required to energize the movie above being run-of-the-mill average. As intermittently entertaining as it can be, “The Domestics” has additional trouble building a bridge between being creatively imaginative and being remotely plausible.
Since the movie’s tone leans much more toward nihilistic seriousness than midnight movie madness, suspension of disbelief becomes an obstacle for audience investment. Desaturated cinematography, violent themes, and straight arrow acting paint a bleak picture. By framing for austereness instead of for fun, a logical mind has a hard time getting behind the notion that when survivors started splitting up to reform an “anything goes” society, enough people bought into the idea of burdening themselves with wearing bed linens to look like goofy ghosts. Even more cumbersomely improbable are the men donning deer heads and strapping roulette wheels on their backs for the purpose of determining whether or not to shoot strangers. Only a dice roll can choose between The Sheets, Gamblers, Plowboys, Nailers, or Cherries for most head-scratching ideology and accompanying outfits.
These are images that look great as concept art and sound terrific on paper. Animated in film form with a slender budget and floppy fiction that doesn’t quite buckle its belt, the fantasy has to fly with clipped wings.
This is also the kind of concept that works well for something such as the short-lived Syfy series “Blood Drive,” where envelope-pushing black humor was distinctly on the agenda. With a marital strife melodrama sitting at its center, “The Domestics” has too tame of a tempo for the campy component of its setup to stay in step with the style.
Another hurdle gets hit when it becomes evident that Nelson has more ideas in his mind than can comfortably fit within a 95-minute movie. Mark and Nina’s rocky relationship provides a fine throughline, yet doesn’t have the story depth to keep the film from feeling as though it merely bounces disjointedly from milieu to milieu.
Some sore thumb scenes include an early sequence where three Nailers interrogate two men and deal with malfunctioning mechanics. What makes this stick out as unusual is that it is one of the only times the movie goes more than a half-minute without featuring Mark or Nina.
An impressively explosive finale typifies the film’s flashes of flair. On the other hand, a mistimed music montage where Kate Bosworth weirdly rocks out while her husband brawls with a gimp-like brute exemplifies how the movie loses itself in odd indulgences. “The Domestics” shows various things happening, they just don’t operate as a cohesively gelled narrative.
Most of the necessary pieces are in play for hitting the key points of dystopian formula. One element missing is a stronger grasp of the film’s own identity, resulting in a movie whose muted spirit misses capitalizing on its complete potential.
Buoyed by its better performances, like that of “The Wire” alum Lance Reddick, “The Domestics” earns a pass for a portion of its predictability. Honest effort boosts the grade too, although déjà vu drabness and ill-fitting interior parts level everything back to being only okay overall.
Review Score: 50