Domestic Disturbance

(Harold Becker, USA, 2001)


Recently I travelled back some 33 years to check if the teen/kids film Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987) remains as bright, inventive and enjoyable as I remembered it. It does. And watching how swiftly it unfolds – and especially how quickly it gets into the main line of its action – I was struck by a huge difference between mainstream cinema then and now, in the 2020s.


Today, before the nocturnal adventure of the heroine (played by Elisabeth Shue) and her young friends in that film could even begin, a bunch of character traits would have to be set out for the main character (or perhaps several of the characters), deftly or laboriously: some fears, some neurosis, some blockage, as well as probably some desire or goal. Subsequently, all these would be “answered”, conquered or fulfilled, in the course of the plot’s events. When this device is done well (as in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host [2006]), it’s terrific; but, so often these days, it’s a big drag. (I haven’t yet tried the 2016 telemovie remake of Adventures in Babysitting – directed by John Schultz, whose previous work I admire – to see which narrative model, 1980s or 2000s, is followed.)


Domestic Disturbance drew my attention in 2020 because I figured it might be an intimacy thriller from the end of that sub-genre’s 1990s cycle. It was a mainstream release I had somehow completely missed at the time. The ingredients seem promising: a once-married couple, Frank (John Travolta) and Susan (Teri Polo), and the suspiciously smooth but potentially menacing newcomer, Rick (Vince Vaughn), who has moved into Susan’s life – as well as into the family home, and the upbringing of son Danny (Matt O´Leary).


And director Harold Becker is closely associated with psychological thrillers of various shades, among them Sea of Love (1989) and Malice (1993). (Looking up the details, I was startled to realise that Becker is now in his 90s, and that Domestic Disturbance will be likely be his final directorial work; he’s also executive producer on the Nicolas Cage vehicle adapted from Joyce Carol Oates, Vengeance: A Love Story [2017].)


As it turns out, Domestic Disturbance is much less a ‘90s-style intimacy thriller than the revisitation of a much older formula, spanning at least four decades from The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949) to Larry Cohen’s Perfect Strangers (aka Blind Alley, 1984) and, most popularly, Peter Weir’s Witness (1985): the dilemma of a child who witnesses a murder, and then feels too scared to tell, or is threatened into keeping it a secret.


But Domestic Disturbance marks the new narrative manner of 21st century Hollywood. This means that, rather than starting where it conventionally (and I believe in this case) more effectively should start – with Danny witnessing the violent crime – it kicks off with a long, meandering succession of boringly naturalistic scenes laying all the groundwork of everybody’s relationships: why the marriage failed, Frank getting time with his son, Susan’s attraction to the new guy, Frank’s beloved but not lucrative job working with boats, and so on. In fact, there’s so much of this that one could easily halt the film 20 minutes in and assume it’s a “modern family problems” telemovie melodrama. (Travolta’s star presence, in its latter-day phase, seems to invite this humanist drift into misty Phenomenon [1996] territory.)


So, by the time the thriller complications kick in – fights, escapes, a fire, explosions – it’s just too little, too late.

MORE Becker: Mercury Rising, City Hall

© Adrian Martin 7 March 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search