Disturbia is a critically vulnerable film at the outset. Its task is an audacious one: "YouTubing" Hitchcock. Who isn't disturbed by the prospect of D.J. Caruso
(Taking Lives!) helming a Rear Window rip-off for the MySpace generation? In the role of Jimmy Stewart: The talented if somewhat untested Shia LeBeouf
. Grace Kelly: Sarah Roemer
, a bit player in the woeful The Grudge 2
. Gulp. Instead of a telescope, we get about four sets of binoculars, video cameras, mobile phones, and some outrageously sophisticated computer surveillance equipment. Instead of the poignantly crafted Miss Lonelyheart and the frustrated composer of Hitchcock's film, the neighbourhood offers for our voyeuristic pleasures the bikini-clad girl next door and a group of prepubescents with a penchant for porn. There is so much wrong before the film has even begun.
The film's beginning will not allay your fears. Kale (LeBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven
) are fishing. Knee-deep in a lake and surrounded by mountains, they share a particularly cheesy father-son moment. We see that he's not just Kale's father, he is his friend. The relationship is so clichéd and the setting so cloyingly idyllic, that one wants to run for the (admittedly beautiful-looking) hills. However, before you go to switch off the Hallmark channel, Caruso offs the dad in a car accident just brutal enough to forgive what came before and dissolve some preconceptions. It's a pretty good move (although not quite Janet Leigh in the Bates Motel shower) and sets us up for a film that effectively handles and plays its audience. Article continues below
One year later, a now sullen Kale hits his cartoonishly inappropriate Spanish teacher in the face and earns himself a stint in house arrest. He is forced to wear a tracking device around his ankle to keep him within the confines of his home and yard. Step out of bounds, and the little green light turns red. His mother (Carrie-Anne Moss
) is distraught, coping with the death of her husband, the derailment of her son, and the financial strains of single parenthood. Stuck in his house, Kale, joined by his best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo
), begins to spy on the neighbors. He is first struck by the girl next-door, sultry afternoon swimmer Ashley (Roemer), but when she joins the boys for the suburban peepshow, it is the man across the road, Mr. Turner (an icy David Morse
), who commands the spotlight. Turner, like Rear Window's Thorvald, has a rather suspicious habit of behaving like a murderer.
The group's investigation of Turner is the drive of the film, and Caruso and writers Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth get a lot of mileage from it. The capabilities of modern technology actually bring something novel to the Rear Window formula. Like Hitchcock's conceit of filming predominantly from within the one room of his Rear Window set, the various technologies here enhance the tension. A scene in which Ronnie sends to Kale's laptop a live feed of his break-in to Turner's garage is a brilliant set piece, managing to ratchet up almost unbearable suspense (just which corner of the shaky screen is Turner going to leap from) while paying triple homage to Hitchcock, The Blair Witch Project, and YouTube.
Screenwriter Ellsworth worked in similarly claustrophobic territory for Wes Craven's Red Eye. That film, also a wildly implausible but ultimately satisfying thriller, was marked by an attention to comic detail in the supporting cast. Disturbia is similarly marked by a hip wit and well-drawn support. I particularly liked Yoo as Ronnie, who enlivens some already sharp dialogue with a manic breakout performance. Yoo's elastic face and energy bring hilarity to even the most nail-biting sequences. LeBeouf fares well too, managing to be heroic, petulant, and romantic with the ease befitting a leading man.
Disturbia ultimately transcends the doubts one might have going in and gets done what it sets out to do. It's no Rear Window; it was never going to be. But as a slick update, and perhaps an introduction for younger audiences to that classic film, it succeeds.