Cinema Signal:

. "Domestic Disturbance"

A well written thriller pitting a father against a convincing menace to his son and ex-wife. One of the film's strong points is its identifiability with its characters and situations. Another is that we're in the company of two leading men that define the overused term, charisma.

John Travolta demonstrates this quality in spades as he plays the role of Frank Morrison, a builder of hand made wooden ships of higher quality and artfulness than the usual factory-made commercial models. Its a craft passed on to him from his father and his father's fathers before him in this small seaside community. He clings to it despite its failure as a business and its contribution to the drinking that lead to his failure as a husband. Now an ex-husband, he enjoys an unshakeable bond with his young son, 12-year old Danny (Matthew O'Leary) who worships him.

Frank's relationship with his ex-wife Susan (Teri Polo of "Meet the Parents") is, at least, civil as they work out Danny's boating trips with Frank. But Susan's plans to remarry sets a lot of shockwaves in motion. Danny gets in trouble with the cops just to try to get his parents together in the same room, wanting their reconciliation more than anything. What he doesn't want more than anything is businessman-of-the-year, smooth talking Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn) to become his step-dad.

In fact, Susan does marry Rick, and ex-husband Frank is cajoled into playing the good guy and attending the wedding ceremony, more in support for his son than for anything else. And, it's at the wedding that he meets up with Ray Coleman (Steve Buscemi) a total stranger in town, an old friend of Ricks, an appearance that has the usually controlled Rick shaken up. The gears of suspicion are beginning to turn. Rick's only been in town for three years, so what exactly is his background? And why does Frank think knowing more about Coleman will provide some answers? And why does Coleman disappear?

Then Danny, continuing his rebellion, hides out in Rick's SUV in order to get to town and away from Rick's house, which he's growing to despise. Only on this rainy night Rick doesn't go to town. Instead, he ... Well, let's just say that Danny comes back with a story about Rick that nobody believes... except Frank, who has never known his son to lie. And Frank realizes that his fears about Rick, and the danger he poses to his family, are nothing compared to the reality.

The perhaps weakest part of all this is how the part of Susan is written, relying as it does on her complete blindness to Rick's true nature, which the other two men in her life detect early on. But, in support of her position, she takes it as sour grapes of an ex-husband and a son's discontent in adapting to a new man in the house. Add to this the considerable economic changes, providing her a large house and all the trimmings of an easy life style with a good looking man who professes sensitivities toward her son and, even, toward her ex-husband, smartly offering him a commission for several new boats. A woman can be blinded by it all.

Travolta dominates the screen as he so often does, bringing us along with him as he copes with his dangers. When we think of Travolta we need not dwell on his few missteps. Instead, think of how commanding he can be with this kind of role in which we're with him from start to finish. And, as possessing as Travolta can be, Vaughn captivates us with a ruthlessness that's as clever as it is evil. This is a role the likes of which he's rarely delivered, made for his deep intelligence and skill in building a deceptive facade to hide underlying ferocity. This is a film worth seeing for these two performances, if for no other reason.

But there are other skillful players as well, not the least of which is 15-year old Matthew O'Leary who is completely up to the rebelliousness with reason. Steve Buscemi is fine as the oily spoiler of well-laid plans.

In a genre that includes such films as "The Stepfather", "The Hand That Rocked the Cradle" and this year's "The Glass House", screenwriter Lewis Colick ("October Sky", 1999; "Ghosts of Mississippi, 1996") has contributed this worthy addition.

Estimated cost: $53,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $45,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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