2007Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Sarah Roemer
he movie is called Disturbia, the star is Shia LaBeouf, and the Hitchcock faithful have already sounded their rallying cry on every Web forum imaginable. A film like Disturbia will never be looked upon fondly by such self-anointed purists, and they probably have a point. Though LaBeouf, who has been skirting on the edge of B-list fame for years, isn’t exactly a latter day Jimmy Stewart, any movie about a house-bound man who takes to watching the neighbors and discovers a killer next door is going to have certain associations.
Whatever. Watching Disturbia, among the brightest of the spring’s saturated crop of thrillers, all that early press suddenly comes up void. The movie is blast. No, there is never specific credit given to its obvious predecessor, but had there been, I would imagine an attempt to update a touchstone like Rear Window for teen audiences would have been met with even more fervent backlash than a film apparently inspired by it. Either way, these are two different movies, if not in concept then certainly in execution—I have never, for one, come across a Hitchcock character who uses YouTube and camera phones to finger a serial killer. Besides, director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) is more interested in unspoken menace than suspense cues (though he provides them dutifully), and his movie is much more effective for it.
In the film, the wheelchair-bound hero of Rear Window is, um, updated into a teenager under house arrest, a new-age rebel with many causes. Kale (LaBeouf) is just a few months removed from his father’s death, and a long summer confined to home is ahead after an amusing transgression involving his Spanish teacher. From the beginning, his releasing officer (Viola Davis) officer tells him to find something to do with his time. Three months is longer than it seems, she warns.
Indeed. Kale spends his first week testing the boundaries of his yard, marking his territory with kite string and lawn gnomes, and it’s not long before a regiment of first-person shooters and jars of peanut butter fails him. In a move that surely seems more ominous to us than it does to him, he takes to watching the neighbors. At first it’s mostly long afternoons spent gazing at the new bombshell next door (Sarah Roemer) and the businessman diddling the maid across the way whenever the wife leaves for the country club. But as news reports on off-screen televisions hint at a possible serial killer targeting local women, Disturbia begins to live up to its ham-fisted moniker, and Kale suspects another neighbor (David Morse) of murdering a young woman.
In short order Kale enlists the support of said bombshell and his apparently lone friend (Aaron Yoo) to infiltrate the man’s home, and, in the film’s prize sequence, the trio use cell-phone cameras, live feeds, and a makeshift lookout tower to see what he has going on in his garage (a gooey trash bag is among their findings). The sequence is thrilling not only for its immediate suspense, but also for how elaborately it takes advantage of the simple technologies available to the characters. Carl Ellsworth, who wrote the screenplay with Christopher Landon, previously showcased his expertise in making much of little in Red Eye (that time it was the confinement of a plane cabin; this time it’s Kale’s house arrest), and he clearly delights in finding ways to progress plot without the typical resources.
If the film’s subsequent romance and red herrings aren’t exactly convincing, they do well at raising the stakes for the final sequence, a mostly conventional end to the movie’s suggested horrors. What Kale ultimately discovers is not a surprise, but the way he discovers it and its ultimate manifestation are a little more eerie, and linger a little longer, than you might expect. Disturbia moves along at a brisk, effortless pace, and most of it is decidedly light-hearted, but the climax reveals that the movie takes its dark elements seriously. The customary lessons of the bildungsroman are all here, but even if you’re not interested in the plot, the film will finally capture you with its unexpected skill as a thriller.
Disturbia is currently playing in wide release.