Over the past decade or so, Hollywood has become obsessed with the imminent downfall of civilization. From The Walking Dead to the Planet of the Apes franchise to a countless number of young adult dystopian nightmares, the theme has grown into such prominence that major newspapers and magazines have begun writing long think pieces on what it all means. Why is it that in a time when the Earth is more geopolitically stable, more peaceful, and more economically prosperous than it has been for centuries, we are as a culture worried that the end has finally about to hit? Is it because we need enemies to provide purpose? It almost seems as though the collapse of the imperial order and the end of the Cold War took away the very raison d’ être for the political and social order, and en masse countries and their peoples turned on themselves
Whatever the cause of the current state of despair and the growing fear that civilization is only moments away from complete collapse, the current glut of apocalypses has created a problem for new entries into the cinematic or televisual Babel of doom, for each must be judged against the rest.
The new thriller The Domestics, which is playing in select theaters and became available for streaming on most major video on demand services last week, suffers from comparison with better films and TV series, and its modest thrills never quite do more than sketch a story that fails to do complete justice to some of the themes the movie seems to want to discuss. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what led to this movie’s creation, but perhaps writer/director Mike P. Nelson took his inspiration from his previous job, as the sound editor for Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, an apocalyptic nightmare if ever there was one. Surely, Fieri’s “Flavortown” is no less an American horror story than the one depicted here.
The Domestics is set in the near future, when the United States government has decided to quell social unrest by spraying the entire country in poisonous chemicals, leaving only a fraction of the population immune to the spray to survive amidst “race wars,” infrastructure collapse, and the rise of violent road gangs which menace the highways in search of food, sex, and sadism. In the remnants of Wisconsin, a husband and wife prepare for a road trip to visit the wife’s parents. Their small town, whose residents, the “domestics” of the title, want to hold on to home and civilization, is relatively safe and defended, but Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina (Kate Bosworth) brave the dangers of the open road because their marriage is collapsing and Mark thinks taking Nina to her parents’ house will rekindle her love for him. If you have ever watched a thriller, you know that the trip won’t go well.
During the long trip across Wisconsin, Mark and Nina pass through a series of loosely connected vignettes about life after the fall of capitalism. They encounter a gang of violent rapists who traffic in women (who apparently were disproportionately killed in the chemical attack), and they discover why the nice man (Lance Reddick from The Wire, Fringe, and John Wick) who saves them from a violent attack isn’t really as nice as he seems and why the hamburgers he serves taste a little gamey. Mark has a weird encounter with what seems to be a predatory (and presumably gay) dandy (David Dastmalchian, who plays a similarly predatory psychosexual obsessive on the new MacGyver) dressed like a chicken-fried Pee-Wee Herman, who forces Mark (“So handsome,” Dastmalchian coos) into a sadomasochistic wrestling death match with a large African American man in a scene I can only describe as infused with many layers of distasteful stereotyping and imagery. It was the low point of the film. (In an interview last week, Nelson actually confirmed that Pee-Wee Herman was the inspiration for the Dastmalchian character, which was a depressing deflation of a moment of what I had hoped was unintentional humor.)
The remaining incidents of the trip, and whether the couple make it to their real or metaphorical destinations, I will leave for you to discover.
The movie offers a few clever touches, though not all of them earned. It initially sets up Mark as the hero, and he starts the film in a traditional male action hero husband/protector role, but the story is actually about Nina’s development into a reluctant heroine, usurping the traditional male role in a feminist reversal of expectations. Since the major villains male (there is one woman, in a minor villainous role), and represent distorted forms of male behavior—the bad provider, the bad protector, the bad breadwinner, etc.—the movie might be an accidentally timely action film for the #MeToo moment. While this still reads as mildly transgressive, it is nevertheless not entirely earned because Nelson devotes far too little time to character development to entirely justify Nina’s character arc. Technically speaking, it is formally motivated, but the beats are rushed. (Perhaps the leisurely seasons of television have spoiled me for 90-minute movies.) Nelson is also prone to telling rather than showing, so we have to accept some points entirely on the characters’ word.
Where it succeeds, however, it does so because of the acting talents of its leads. Tyler Hoechlin (Teen Wolf, Everybody Get Some!!, Supergirl) is more than capable of depicting the classic leading man action hero, and more than looks the part. This makes it easy for the audience to project expectations onto him that will purposely go unfulfilled. I would be surprised if he doesn’t do a traditional action movie someday. By contrast, Kate Bosworth (SS-GB, Superman Returns, Young Americans [!]) does the movie’s emotional heavy-lifting and manages to plausibly depict both an emotionally damaged woman in denial and a steely action heroine. If the transition between the two is not entirely convincing, that is due more to the script than Bosworth.
Both Hoechlin and Bosworth do their best work of the movie not in any of the action scene or the horror set pieces but in a quiet moment. The movie’s pivotal scene is a dinner where Mark and Nina break bread with a family of fellow survivors who ask about their lives in the before time. Nina talks about her high-powered career, while Mark sheepishly admits that he was between jobs. Nina tries to save Mark’s pride, despite her upset with him, by telling her hosts that he was “trying” to get his contractor’s license. Mark takes great offense. “I was getting it,” he insists. “Not trying.” Their hosts smirk knowingly and laugh that Nina was the breadwinner while Mark must have enjoyed the relaxation. It’s played as a minor moment, but it is when the gendered roles begin to change and the audience’s implicit assumptions about who Mark and Nina are begin to be challenged. In miniature, it represents the movie’s view of the failures of modern American manhood.
Nevertheless, it never entirely felt like Hoechlin and Bosworth were acting in the same movie, and while both were excellent in their roles, together they were less than the sum of their parts. They were entirely convincing as distant spouses but less so as two people who loved each other. I never felt the chemistry. I am not entirely sure that we couldn’t swap out either Mark or Nina for a completely unrelated random stranger and have the movie turn out any different.
Nelson plays the story as an homage to ’80s movies, right down to the 1982 Ugly-Mobile that Mark drives, apparently under the delusion that 1982 was a vintage year for classic cars. There are echoes of Mad Max and most of the other postapocalyptic thrillers of the past several decades (most reviewers describe it as “Mad Max meets The Purge”), though the animating spirit is more the balls-out bonkers grindhouse cinema of the 1970s and other ’70s horror thrillers like The Warriors, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and Death Race 2000. The trouble is that Syfy did a better and more entertaining pastiche of these influences last year with Blood Drive, which covered a lot of the same ground with more style. The Domestics pales in comparison, being both smaller in scale, lower in budget, and lesser in ambition. It wants to have the wacky accouterments of grindhouse films without the wry tone.
That’s not to say that The Domestics isn’t entertaining on its own terms. It tells a coherent story, mostly logically, and offers a satisfying if pat conclusion. It has just enough style to make it interesting to look at, and the action scenes are lovingly choreographed to be both easy to follow and thrilling to watch. It’s just hard to recommend spending money on video-on-demand stream of a film whose parts you’ve seen done better in many other films. If this were a Syfy original movie or a Netflix stream, it would be well worth checking out. But at $6.99—or whatever your VOD provider is charging—from the revived Orion Classics label, you could do better.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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