Domestic Disturbance (2001)

D: Harold Becker
S: John Travolta, Vince Vaughan

Narratively contrived and psychologically unconvincing thriller featuring John Travolta (Battlefield Earth) as a nice-guy divorcee who begins to suspect that his ex-wife's (Teri Polo) new husband (Vince Vaughan) is not all he appears to be. Concerned for her well being, but especially for that of his son (Matt O'Leary), he takes action to protect his shattered family. After a good first half hour which sets up the dynamics of post-marital familial relationships, the screenplay trips over its act one turning point and never regains its balance. Early on the film is careful to establish a sense of underlying tension and understandable paranoia in how Travolta views the remarriage of his ex and the threat of losing his son to a new Dad. This works well in setting up both drama and suspense. Things become altogether too obvious when O'Leary witnesses Vaughan murdering former associate Steve Buscemi (Ghost World). The film then lurches forward on a series of increasingly ridiculous conveniences and implausibilities and it loses its grip long before the standard-issue scream and stalk finale.

Director Harold Becker does his best to deliver a basic genre piece, and with the benefit of lots of scenes shot in semi-darkness and a reckless disregard for how awful the script really gets, he succeeds in carrying it limping over the threshold of mediocrity. The premise, from a story by Lewis Colick, William S. Comanor, and Gary Drucker, is not without its merits, but the screenplay eventually accredited to Colick sabotages it. The sense of passive-aggressive unease which dominates the early scenes suggests a rich social and psychological backdrop for the action, a questioning of values and perceptions which promises to turn the screws both viscerally and emotionally. Unfortunately all of this dissipates in the face of genre cliches which seem to come out of a textbook, right down to the ever-increasing stakes and the 'ticking clock' that is Vaughan himself.

As the antagonist of the piece, Vaughan (Psycho) does a frankly laughable good cop bad cop routine which might make sense if the events of the film were supposedly being seen from the point of view of the child (invading stepfather, etc). It works less well when Travolta is allowed to be completely correct in his suspicions. Once the audience knows the truth and has no reason to doubt Travolta's point of view, there is no more tension between the characters; merely the expectation of righteous fisticuffs and the redemption of the nuclear family. When this comes, it arrives complete with an "I told you so" moment of resolution with the police which belongs in an Enid Blyton novel. The contrast between scenes in which the son sees Vaughan for what he is and scenes of Travolta trying to come to terms with whether or not he believes him could have used more ambiguity, throwing suspicion upon both the child and the father's perceptions of events. Without this kind of suspense, the film has nowhere to go but to the act two turning point, climax and catharsis in a purely by-the-numbers manner.

The script also has trouble with supporting characters. Polo comes off best insofar as the character is given some unexpected good sense just in time to up the stakes at the climax, but most of the others from the cops investigating the case to Travolta's pointlessly underdeveloped girlfriend (Susan Floyd) are redundancies which the films seems unable to deal with. People seem to be important then are not, characters turn up and get punched then disappear before you know who they are, and though Steve Buscemi is as good as ever in his small but pivotal role, his character behaves with a convenient mixture of smarts and stupidity which only a screenwriter could love. The same problem also eventually unravels Vaughan's characterisation, a person supposedly clever enough to escape his murky past yet stupid enough not to split when he has the chance rather than go mano-y-mano with his arch nemesis in the closing scenes.

Domestic Disturbance is a film which might, at best, find itself in the footnotes of contemporary American cinema if and when someone takes the time to examine it alongside genre pieces like Mother's Boys, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Consenting Adults. The film shares a concern with the cracks and fissures in familial disintegration which is wrapped around a thriller format that eventually (re)asserts a cosy, conservative point of view. The fact that once the killings begin the film loses all sociological credibility is beside the point. Most people probably won't care about this aspect of things, of course, and many will take a look at it on the strength of its generic merits and star power alone. On that score, Travolta displays little depth in a role which first of all allows it then finally does not, Vaughan looks pale and embalmed (actually many of the cast seem unnaturally pale for some reason) and has too many silly transitions to play, and on the whole the generic plot creaks like old floorboards. Director Becker has done much better than this (Sea of Love), and really there is nothing to recommend here unless it is a really slow night and you've seen everything else on TV.

Note: The Region 2 comes with a director's commentary, deleted scenes and other features which still don't make it worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.