A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 104 mins.
Kale: Shia LaBeouf / Mr. Turner: David Morse / Ashley: Sarah Roemer / Julie: Carrie-Ann Moss / Ronnie: Aaron Yoo
Directed by D.J. Caruso / Written by Carl Ellsworth / Based on the story by Christopher Landon
Shia LaBeouf kind of reminds of me of a young Jimmy Stewart. He is funny without over-hamming up the zaniness; he’s cool, collected, and reserved, but not without having charm and charisma; he’s instantly an affable screen presence, even when he has a clear cut darker edge to his character; and lastly he effectively balances earnest sentiment with a nicely underplayed goofiness, a trait that some actors twice his age have a difficult time mustering.
I pay LaBeouf all of these juicy compliments as a prelude of sorts to discussing DISTURBIA, which is a clear-cut homage to REAR WINDOW – one of the greatest of all films – which starred Jimmy Stewart. Calling it a blatant rip-off kind of does it disservice. I think that the best way to typify the film would be to call it an appropriation of elements of REAR WINDOW that are absorbed in with subtle differences in character, location, and story. In a way, it’s TEEN REAR WINDOW, kind of John Hughes meets Alfred Hitchcock, and the one thing that ultimately surprised me about the film was that it takes its time building on characters and tone and then allows for the action and suspense to take over in the final thirty minutes.
Considering the relative smorgasbord of dumb teen slasher films that permeate the cinemas these days, DISTURBIA is uniformly refreshing in the sense that it does an exceedingly effective job of being smart, sly, funny, and legitimately thrilling. Considering the amount of divergent material and themes here – like teen angst and alienation, mother/ son relationships, family trauma, first crushes, and the more obvious elements of the thriller genre – seeing DISTURBIA find the precise balance of tone and mood is to its credit. Perhaps even better is that it treats its teen characters plausibly as resourceful, intelligent, and crafty. I love it when films give us adolescent characters that are not stock types, nor are they meandering zombies servicing a paint-by-numbers narrative. Because of that, the film is much smarter and craftier that one would initially think.
And - yes - the parallels to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW are all here in abundance, but DISTURBIA has a lot of fun and spirit with modernizing them. In WINDOW we had the middle-aged Stewart who is wheel chair bound who passes the time everyday by watching the comings and goings of all of his neighbors outside his apartment complex. In DISTURBIA’s case, LaBeouf is confined to his home, but not via personal injury, but by the ankle bracelet the cops make him wear for his house arrest sentence. WINDOW had the gorgeous Grace Kelly as Stewart’s leading lady and love interest. IN DISTURBIA we have the fetching Sarah Roemer that catches LaBeouf’s eyes and heart. Finally, WINDOW had the imposing and quietly commanding presence of Raymond Burr as the evil killer next door. In DISTURBIA, we have David Morse as the potential killer of the LaBeouf’s block, and Morse has such a field day in the film with his effortlessly creepy and slimy performance that you instantly know from the second you lay eyes on this guy that he may – just may – have several corpses hidden in his home. As Morse has successfully proven time and time again, he is one of the best actors at playing festering, unapologetic slimballs with a screw loose.
However, before the mayhem and suspense unfolds, DISTURBIA opens quietly and modestly with Kale (LaBeouf) and his father enjoying a peaceful and relaxing vacation fly-fishing together. What happens next is interesting from a story standpoint: On the way home Kale swerves his car to avoid a collision on the highway, but still manages to roll the vehicle. Just when they think they’re safe, another car comes thundering in and obliterates the passenger side that carried Kale’s father, instantly killing him. The immediacy of this opening sequence has real strength and potency because it allows for the film to not dwell on introductions – we immediately make the transition into the main guts of the rest of the story.
One year later we see an emotionally troubled Kale in school. After his history teacher scolds him for not finishing his homework – and after making a crackpot and snide remark indirectly about his dead father – Kale jumps his teacher and punches him out. At his hearing the judge has mercy on him…to a degree. Taking into consideration his father’s recent, tragic death – and the fragile state Kale is in as a result – he sentences him to three months house arrest with – gasp! – his mother (Carrie Anne Moss, nicely playing against her kick-ass MATRIX persona) facilitating as warden.
Kale agrees to his punishment and banishes himself to his home. How hard could three months of house arrest be? He has all of the cool tech gadgets that any teen – or adult for that matter – would have at his disposable to kill 90 days with. He has a PC with thousands of hours of downloaded music; a home theatre system with big screen LCD TV; and an XBOX 360 hooked up to the Internet so that he can play endless games against his friends. His life is only really complicated by the fact that he has to wear an ankle bracelet and can’t go beyond 100 yards of the house, otherwise the cops come pronto and bust him again. Unfortunately for Kale, the bracelet becomes a bane of his existence, and not only that, but his stern mother cancels his Internet and 360 live accesses. Nooooooooo!!!!
Realizing that he can’t simply pass the days with his eyes to the tube or computer monitor, Kale soon tries to find ways to curb his ever-growing boredom. He does this – of course – by watching everything that is going on with his neighbors through his second level bedroom window. Much like Stewart in REAR WINDOW, Kale becomes an increasingly inquisitive judge and eyewitness to the most minute of activities by the other people of his block. He observes one neighbor having an affair, on neighbor that likes to cut his grass a lot, one neighbor whose young kids like to watch soft-core porn when mom is not looking, and so on. Oh, he especially likes peeping on his sexy new neighbor, Ashley (Roemer) who likes to exercise in next to nothing and swims daily in her tiny bikini. And then there is Mr. Turner (Morse) who Kale observes having a dented car that has an eerie similarity to one that TV reports say was at the scene of a recent kidnapping…hmmmmm.
Within no time Ashley catches on to the fact that Kale has been “eavesdropping” on her life and knocks on his door one afternoon after catching Kale and his buddy (Aaron Yoo) checking her out in the swimming pool. Kale thinks it's great having the girl of his dreams spend time with him and eventually lures her into his daily escapades of spying on the neighborhood. However, the more they both watch Turner every night and day, the more suspicious they grow of him. After all, he does not seem like a decent chap. One night he causes a date to run screaming through his house, all while he has a knife in his hand. On top of that, they catch a wild splatter of blood hit the window one night and then see Turner take a giant, bloody bag down to his garage. Is he a stone cold sociopath and killer, or are they just paranoid and delusional? Well, Kale will not rest until – dammit – he has absolute proof. Like a classic Hitchcockian protagonist, he lets his inner obsessions consume him to the point of fanaticism.
The film then gets very engaging in the way it taps into the imagination and ingenuity of the teens. I appreciated the manner with which the script treats these characters as having brains in their heads. They don’t just use binoculars, but they set digital camcorders with night lenses to record all suspicious activity, set up specialized ring tones for each other to know who is calling each other on their cells when one is doing recon work, and so forth. One sequence is especially ingenious in the way it shows the characters’ affinity and utilization of technology. Wanting concrete evidence of a body in Turner’s garage, Kale gets Ashley to follow Turner to the hardware store and take snap shots with her digital camera while he is buying shovels. She then emails them to Kale who saves them to the hard drive of his PC. Meanwhile, as Ashley tails Turner, Kale pulls a MacGuyver and concocts a digital surveillance camera that his buddy can take with him while he breaks into the garage. This way, if he is caught, he may get video proof. However, the vile and menacing Turner soon discovers that the armchair sleuths are watching his every move and this makes him…angry…which leads to a thrilling and violent third act.
I will go on record to say that DISTURBIA is no REAR WINDOW. The film has many predictable elements, like the fact that Kale tries to prove that a seemingly ordinary man is a vicious killer, but that everyone thinks he’s insane for thinking that (including the cops). Also, we are given the requisite red herrings that absolve Turner of guilt but later evidence springs up to support his homicidal tendencies. Furthermore, we just know that Turner will try to come off as a nice, congenial gentleman to Kale’s mom – which will tick him off – and that Kale will inevitably go beyond the hundred yard perimeter of his home to scope out Turner’s pad, hence enticing the police to rush out and threaten him with jail time for breaching his house arrest sentence. Finally, we know that there will be the perfunctory showdown between the kid and the killer, which will not end well for one of them.
Yet, DISTURBIA does not work efficiently because of its stock elements, but rather by how it uses them to tell an absorbing yarn that creates a palpable and realistic sense of dread and paranoia. The film was directed by D.J. Caruso (who worked on TV’s THE SHIELD, as well as directing another decent thriller, TAKING LIVES, and the very under-rated TWO FOR THE MONEY), who knows precisely how to hone in the film’s humor, intensity, and scares in equal dosages. The film is sneaky and sly in the way it gradually develops the story and characters and does not just parade around as a witless series of gratuitous slasher moments.
The film is more patient and pays its teen characters more respect than many other modern films do, and Shia LaBeouf’s work is layered and nuanced. He’s done decent work in the past with smaller roles in films like CONSTANTINE, i, ROBOT, and HOLES, but in DISTURBIA he emerges as one of Hollywood’s brightest new talents. He makes Kale a believable figure of obsession and innate mistrust, but he wisely plays him with a droll undercurrent that never makes him a downer. Again, like Jimmy Stewart, he’s sullen without being overbearing and likeable without being squeaky clean. LaBeouf’s snarky demeanor and internalized awkwardness makes him more real and this consequently allows for the film to resonate with audiences that much more.
DISTURBIA is – at face value – a teen-centric clone of Hitchcock’s vastly superior REAR WINDOW. However, superficial similarities alone should not instantly discredit its merits as an expertly manufactured thriller. It has many stock elements of the genre, to be sure, but the smart writing and slick direction create forward momentum and a decent, escalating sense of impending dread and tension. Beyond that, the film has the always credible and assured presence of Shia LaBeouf, who seems to be getting better with every new film (he may achieve world wide exposure with his presence in the next installment of the INDIANA JONES franchise in 2008) . As a grisly and perpetually creepy whodunit, DISTURBIA is proficiently riveting and chilling and – unlike other recent horror/suspense films – it treats its angst-ridden teens with a lot more respect and dignity. Instead of letting them populate the film as mindless drones at the service of shockingly gory action scenes, the film allows for them to be bright, creative, shrewd and have actual personalities. Hitchcock would approve.