In Mike P. Nelson’s freshman outing, The Domestics, he effectively paints a bleakly hopeful portrait of marriage set against a post-apocalyptic Purge-like America.
In The Domestics, the US has essentially become the land of The Purge after a dictatorial government gassed everyone and hundreds of millions died. There’s still (inexplicably) electricity and people running around, all of whom have formed gangs with various costume and type. There’s the Sheets (because they wear sheets like Klansmen) who are in a turf war with the Nailers (they are covered in spikes and they kill people), as well as Cherries (the titles tell us they’re man-haters), the Plowboys (because they drive snowplows), and the Gamblers (who inexplicably wear animal heads and gamble a lot). And then there are the Domestics—regular, unaligned people who just want to live. Our heroes are the titular Domestics, Nina and Mark West (Kate Bosworth and Tyler Hoechlin), and they desperately want to get to Milwaukee to fix their marriage. But along the way, they have to beware of snipers on the roads and navigate the gang wars that they’re driving through.
When I come across a film like this, I have to ask: what sets this apart from the ever-expanding list of other post-apocalyptic movies? Mad Max, Book of Eli, Cargo, The Road, Children of Men, 28 Days Later, It Comes At Night, A Quiet Place, etc. There doesn’t seem like much new to add to the conversation.
Here, much as in the most successful films of its kind, the domestic issues have made this a more personal story. The Domestics is a metaphor for the trials of life that a relationship must endure. Despite all the hell that they’re going through in this new world, Nina has reverted to her maiden name, a touch that seems spiteful but oddly relatable in their situation. Mark, however, is determined to save their marriage, while Nina cannot cope with this world, going so far as to put on headphones and play music loudly so she can’t hear her husband fighting off invading Nailers. She accuses him of playing a delusional game of survival, while he says her hope for finding her parents is the real delusion.
They run across Nathan Wood (Lance Reddick) and his surprisingly functional family, contrasting sharply with Nina and Mark, who snipe at one another regularly. This metaphor is wonderfully clear and effective—life is going to get in the way, it’s going to be difficult, but you have to make the decision to confront the world together or let it eat you alive. All in all, both Bosworth and Hoechlin play the balancing act between their physical safety and the endurance of their marriage quiet capably.
But the metaphor goes only so far. This is a horror film, after all. It’s enjoyable intense without being overly brutal (don’t get me wrong, the brutality still exists, but it’s well-balanced).
A few random things to mention: Crazy Al (Allyn M. Schmitz) is a DJ for the radio station KILU and he acts as a sort of narrator, updating us on the insanity of this new world. This worked incredibly well for me, setting the stage for the world. Also, more randomly, both leads are DC alums, with Bosworth playing Lois Lane in Superman Returns and Hoechlin playing Superman in The Flash and Supergirl TV series.
First-time director Mike P. Nelson does a solid job of worldbuilding here, with a lot of potential. Much like The Purge, we start out in one little corner of the world and could easily explore much more in an expanding franchise. Overall, The Domestics bears a similar message to Shaun of the Dead or, more specifically, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but that doesn’t make it less effective or fun. It’s about relationships and marriage: you can’t just give up when life begins to suck. You have to fight for what you love, which is a strangely beautiful message amidst all the carnage.