Sitting atop the box office in its opening week, the thriller Disturbia is, as contemporary thrillers go, pretty good; until its histrionic ending, it manages to build suspense and to deliver a few genuine scares. With a credible and sympathetic performance by Shia LaBeouf, the talented young actor from Holes, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Disturbia follows the observant eye of Kale Brecht (LaBeouf), who is under house-arrest for punching a teacher and whose boredom leads him to begin following the daily lives of his neighbors, one of whom is the object of his adolescent fantasies, while another is engaging in highly suspicious activities.
The echoes of Rear Window are intentional and, for those who know Hitchcock’s classic, unfortunate. Although the film makes a rather interesting and entertaining shift from the adult world of the 1954 film to the contemporary lives of today’s teens, its feeble attempts at mimicking a classic only heighten the disappointment.
The opening scenes, which move rapidly from Kale’s idyllic father-son fishing trip to a horrendous car accident that kills his father, serve both to underscore the fragility of the surface calm of ordinary life and to render Kale a deeply sympathetic character, whose later attack on his teacher is provoked by the teacher’s taunting reference to Kale’s dead father. Under house arrest, Kale’s only companions are his genial and humorous sidekick Ronnie (Aaron Roo) and Ashley (Sara Roemer), the attractive neighbor who just moved in next door. (In Kale’s video tracking of Ashley, there is an apparent allusion to American Beauty, although Disturbia is blessedly free of the pretentiousness that afflicted the Oscar winner.) Following Kale’s lead, the three quickly become sleuths, investigating Mr. Turner (David Morse), a neighborhood loner whom Kale’s speculation links to reports on a local serial killer. The film’s best scenes, which adeptly combine humor and terror, involve attempts at amateur investigative work, with Ashley following the suspect around town and Ronnie entering the man’s garage in search of evidence of guilt.
Beyond these moments, the film has little to offer, and the allusions to Rear Window remind knowledgeable viewers of just how thoughtful that film was — about voyeurism of course, but also about men and women, love and independence, and even the ethics of making and watching films. At certain points, Disturbia gestures in the direction of a reflection on our technologically fed voyeurism. Kale only begins to take an interest in the world outside his house once his mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) takes away his X-Box, iTunes, and cable television. The shallowness of the film’s way of understanding the issues it implicitly brings to the fore is evident in Kale’s comment to Ronnie, “This is reality without the TV. ” Which is cause and which effect is unclear, but the film does more than suggest that the themes of paranoia and suspicion that are staples of our television dramas influence our approach to those we encounter in the “real world.” It then proceeds, however, to confirm those suspicions in the most literal and crudest way possible.
In Rear Window and other films, perhaps most notably in Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock masterfully captures the way evil lurks just beneath the surface of ordinary American life. By comparison, the least compelling aspect of Disturbia is its crude and predictable depiction of its suspected serial killer, Mr. Turner. Turner is as conventional a psycho killer as he could possibly be; the film’s ending, and Turner’s ending, pulls out all the clichéd plot-lines of 1980s horror films. The choice of character and plot here makes the film much less disquieting than any Hitchcock thriller.
One final comparative point is worth making. It is not just that Hitchcock had better dialogue, a better plot, and better acting. (Sara Roemer is more a Jessica Biel than a Grace Kelly.) One of the striking differences concerns the coarseness, even apart from the grisly discoveries made along the way, of the American society depicted in Disturbia. In an early scene, some neighborhood kids play a prank on Kale by setting fire on his porch to a bag of doggy doo; as the police arrive and his neighbors watch him being cuffed (for violating his house arrest by chasing the kids), he screams repeatedly about “dog s##t!” Later, Kale observes the young boys in their bedroom as they watch pornography on a TV. Mere passing moments perhaps, but indicative of a Hollywood culture that appealed for, and won, a reduction of rating for this film from R to PG-13, a rating that means lots of ill-informed parents will be bringing along their 9 and 10 year olds. Am I wrong to find something disturbing in that phenomenon?