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Domestic Disturbance (2001) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

rick danny frank susan

Principal social themes: divorce, women’s rights, child abuse/spouse abuse

Paramount. PG-13 rating. Featuring: John Travolta, Vince Vaughn, Steve Buscemi, Teri Polo, Matt O’Leary, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Angelica Torn, Susan Floyd, Steve Roberts. Written by Lewis Colick based on a story by Lewis Colick, William Comanor, and Gary Drucker. Cinematography by Michael Seresin. Edited by Peter Honess. Music by Mark Mancina. Produced by Donald DeLine and Jonathan Krane. Directed by Harold Becker. Color. 89 minutes.


Domestic Disturbance is a straightforward thriller largely based on a realistic consideration of social issues, principally on the question of parental responsibility after divorce.


Frank Morrison (John Travolta) is a divorced boat builder in Maryland whose twelve-year-old son, Danny, is becoming an increasing problem with local authorities due to truancy and vandalism. Sergeant Edgar Stevens of the local police summons Frank and his former wife, Susan, to discuss what is setting Danny off. Susan reveals that she is getting remarried. Frank has a long talk with his son, explaining that he and his mother tried hard to make their marriage work, but they failed. His mother now has the right to get on with her life and that includes a new husband. Danny says he loathes Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn), his mother’s fiancé, an entrepreneur who recently moved to town. Susan suggests that Frank take Rick along on his next sailing outing with Danny. Frank reluctantly agrees, and they have a pleasant voyage. Rick offers Frank a large boat-building contract. When Danny refuses to attend the wedding ceremony, Frank agrees to come to the ceremony as well, something he was not planning to do. At the reception, Frank encounters Ray Coleman (Steve Buscemi), a sleazy individual who claims to be an old friend of Rick’s. When Coleman talks to the groom in private, he calls Rick by his real name, Jack Parnell. They were both thieves who were involved in a large robbery, and Rick got away with the loot. Coleman now demands his cut. Rick tells him that he will arrange payment later, but he needs time since he just got married. Coleman tells him he will take up residence at a motel just outside of town. A few days later, Frank sees Coleman at a local diner and stops to chat with him, questioning him about Rick. Passing by the restaurant, Rick becomes alarmed when he sees the two of them sitting together. He visits Coleman to make arrangements. The former convict tells Rick that he located him by stumbling across his photo when his wedding was announced. Rick warns him to stay away from Frank.

Several weeks pass, and Danny’s relationship with his stepfather remains awkward. He panics, however, when he learns his mother is pregnant. He hides in Rick’s SUV, planning to sneak a lift into town so he could run away. Instead, Rick drives to pick up Coleman, supposedly to pay him off. The hidden Danny is stunned when Rick stabs Coleman, killing him and throwing his body into a flaming superheated kiln at the brickworks factory. The boy remains quiet, awaiting his chance to sneak out of the vehicle. He runs to his father’s place and tells him that he witnessed the murder. Frank calls the police, and Sergeant Stevens investigates. When no blood is found in the SUV, he dismisses the boy’s story as a fabrication in light of his mother’s pregnancy. Frank is not convinced, and he refuses Rick’s boat contract. Although Danny had lied in the past to his teachers, the police, and his mother, Frank could not think of an occasion when the boy lied to him. He takes Danny away after school the next day, and the police pick him up for abduction. He then hires a lawyer to claim custody of Danny. Frank’s girlfriend breaks with him, not wanting to get involved in a custody battle. Susan tells Rick that she intends to fight to keep Danny. In private, Rick threatens Danny that he will kill his father if he asks the court to leave his mother’s custody. The boy is called to the stand and says he made up the story about Rick killing someone. He then asks to remain with Susan and Rick. Frank is thunderstruck by the admission, and Danny refuses to go with Frank on their regular Sunday outing. Frank, a recovering alcoholic, starts drinking again. He shows up when Rick is honored with a community service award and demands to talk with his son. When Frank is turned away, Danny pretends he dropped his wallet and whispers to his father not to oppose Rick or he might kill him. Assuming his son told him the truth originally, Frank tries to locate Coleman, the only man who could have been his target. He locates a prostitute frequented by Coleman, and she sells Frank a lighter with a horseshoe that Coleman gave her. He asks the police to dust the lighter for fingerprints, but too many people had handled the lighter. Working on a tip that Coleman came from Chicago, Frank discovers a police file on the Internet showing that Rick is actually Jack Parnell, a wanted fugitive. He e-mails the file to Sergeant Stevens. Meanwhile, Rick breaks into Frank’s boathouse and knocks him out. He sets fire to the place, burning his arm in the process, but Frank manages to slip out of the burning building. Danny and Susan see a news bulletin about the fire on TV. Danny tells her that Rick must have started it, that he threatened to hurt Frank before his appearance before the judge. Susan does not believe him, until she comes across Rick nursing his burnt arm in the bathroom. She starts to flee with Danny, but Rick strikes her, causing a miscarriage. Frank shows up and battles with Rick, who gets electrocuted when he accidentally strikes the fuse box with a crowbar. The police finally show up, and Stevens apologizes to Danny for not believing him. Susan and Frank appear reconciled before she is taken by ambulance to the hospital.


While the synopsis of Domestic Disturbance may sound wildly melodramatic, the story itself is depicted in a low-key and credible fashion. Much of it is centered on Danny’s problems such as his inability to accept his parents’ divorce, a traditional screen plot for years in such films as Walt Disney’s The Parent Trap (1961) and others. Matt O’Leary is very believable as Danny, a very difficult role, and his quiet reading keeps the melodrama from getting out of hand. For the first half, the realistic tone of the film highlights the social issues, the continuing residue of the problems of divorce. In this case, Frank and Susan have largely settled the personal issues between themselves, sharing the responsibilities of raising Danny and attending counseling sessions to help their son cope with the reality of their split. Custody never appears to be a problem, and Susan never tries to interfere with Frank’s weekly visitations. This naturally falls apart after Danny accuses his stepfather of murder. Susan is blinded and does not accept her son’s word for an instant. Like “the boy who cried wolf,” Danny has lied to her once too often, although he never deceived his father. In many divorce cases, the children may try to pit their warring parents against each other to get their way. In Danny’s case, he acted wild merely to get his parents to function together in dealing with him.

Other social concerns are also reflected in the plot. The court scene is very poignant, as Susan asserts her maternal rights, and the judge tries to allow Danny’s own preferences to weigh in his judgment on custody. This becomes moot, however, when Danny unexpectedly sides with his mother. This tears his father apart, however, and Danny is no longer able to face him, both because he wounded him and because of Rick’s threat. The abuse Danny suffers from his mother is unintentional. He lost her trust, and her love for him is unable to bridge the gap. The abuse from his stepfather, Rick, is on several levels. It is evident that Rick dislikes Danny long before the murder scene. When they are playing ball, for example, their hostility and inability to relate make a very potent scene. Oddly enough, when Danny tells the police about the murder, he seems equally insistent to stress that he overheard Rick admit that he hates him. It is this personal wound, perhaps, that Sergeant Stevens misread in his decision to ignore Danny’s accusation. Domestic Disturbance is a surprisingly rich and intelligent film, apart from the stereotypical climax after Susan sees Rick’s burned arm.

Dominic, Saint [next] [back] Domestic Architecture in the Old Kingdom - PLANNED TOWNS., CHANGING THE FUNCTION OF BUILDINGS., SOURCES

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