Disturbia (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Disturbia is a nice little mystery thriller that takes a wrong turn on the way to its climax and morphs into a slasher movie. This abrupt change in tone is as jarring as it is unwelcome and transforms what could have been an effectively tense conclusion into something so over-the-top that it's almost laughable. During its best moments, Disturbia doesn't have the material to be memorable, but it is watchable and the subject matter holds an undeniable fascination. But the filmmakers' belief that modern audiences will only respond to noisy, inarticulate endings dooms this movie to a last act that devalues, rather than elevates, it.

Anyone with a rudimentary sense of film history will recognize this as a re-imagination of Rear Window, even if the final twenty minutes owes more to Friday the 13th than the Hitchcock classic. The essential premise has lost none of its ability to compel: how a person, trapped in his house, can fill the hollowness of his existence by voyeuristically experiencing the lives of others. The dramas that unfold through the windows of neighbors become real-life soap operas, with plenty of sex, nudity, and - unfortunately - violence.

One obvious difference is that Rear Window featured James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr. Disturbia stars Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, and David Morse. With all due respect to these actors, they're not in the same pantheon and they don't come close to evidencing the same screen presence. LaBeouf doesn't feel right for the part and he fails to convey the kind of desperation that would escalate the suspense to an unbearable level. Roemer is pretty enough but doesn't show much in the way of acting ability. And Morse is in full bad-ass mode. We know from the first minute we see him that he's a creep, not just some misunderstood lonely guy. Carrie-Anne Moss appears in the throw-away part of the mother and Aaron Yoo plays one of the year's most annoying sidekicks. He singlehandedly ruins nearly every scene in which he appears.

After a quiet little prologue featuring Kale (LaBeouf) and his father fishing, we're thrust into the story via a disturbing car crash. I will give director D.J. Caruso credit for making this one of the most visceral automobile accidents to reach the screen in some time. This is more unsettling than anything that comes after. A year later, Kale is a sullen and uncommunicative student who goes before a judge after punching his Spanish teacher. He is given a sentence of house arrest: three months during which he must wear an ankle bracelet that defines his world as being within 100 feet of the signal box.

After his mother cancels his X-Box online subscription, Kale has nothing to do but stare out his bedroom window. Through it, he sees a neighbor having an affair with his maid; kids sneaking peeks at a porn channel when their mom isn't looking; Ashley (Roemer), the sexy new girl next door, undressing with her blinds open; and the strange Mr. Turner (Morse), whose car looks exactly like one reportedly used in a recent kidnapping, doing nefarious things. Soon, Kale has lured Ashley into his room and convinced her that Turner is up to no good. They begin to monitor his activities, but Turner is no dummy and he knows he's being watched.

While Disturbia borrows from Rear Window, it's not a straight remake. Ultimately, Caruso is less interested in building tension than he is in spraying the screen with blood, gore and shocks. There's also little ambiguity about Turner's innocence or guilt. Morse's approach to the role is to let us know from the beginning that his character is a cold-blooded killer and turn the film into a battle of wits between Turner and Kale. In the end, it's not much of a struggle as both of them turn out to be less-than-formidable adversaries.

A comparison between Caruso and Hitchcock is obviously unfair - one is among the pantheon of film deities while the other has a few middling titles on his resume, but that's what happens when a director works in Rear Window territory. Disturbia is not a terrible movie. Even with the sordid ending, it holds the viewer's interest the way any competently made thriller can. There's a sense of potential squandered but maybe it takes a dumbed-down, amped-up approach to capture the attention of today's viewers. Give me Rear Window; Disturbia is like watching a similar story through a glass darkly.

Disturbia (United States, 2007)

Director: D. J. Caruso
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Sarah Roemer, Aaron Yoo, Carrie-Anne Moss
Screenplay: Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth
Cinematography: Rogier Stoffers
Music: Geoff Zanelli
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2007-04-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1