Stalkin’ the Suburbs
It’s tempting to call Disturbia a modern-day remake of Rear Window, but that doesn’t quite feel right. The movie straddles the line between remake and homage, sharing most of the general story beats with its inspiration but changing the time period, setting, and protagonist to such an extent that it avoids feeling like a rip-off. On the whole, Disturbia gets to have its cake and eat it too, taking advantage of the path forged by its masterful predecessor while still retaining its own identity.
One year after the tragic death of his father, 17-year-old Kale (Shia LaBeouf) punches a condescending teacher and is sentenced to house arrest for the summer. Thanks to the electronic bracelet strapped to his ankle, Kale’s entire world consists of his house and the small space around it. Within just days, cabin fever sets in, exacerbated by Kale’s fed-up mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) cutting him off from TV and video games. Desperate for a diversion, Kale starts spying on his neighbors, in particular sexy new arrival Ashley (Sarah Roemer). After plenty of snooping, Kale begins to suspect his solitary middle-aged neighbor Robert Turner (David Morse) in a string of disappearances in the area, and sets out to prove it. Before long, Kale ropes Ashley and his goofy best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) into the scheme, which starts out as an innocent lark but takes a turn for the dangerous when Turner gets wind of Kale’s suspicions.
Disturbia is very of-its-time without feeling dated: the chunky iPods, flip phones, and alt-rock soundtrack are all charmingly nostalgic rather than grating, and the pixilated images of Kale’s digital video camera add a lo-fi sense of dread to some key scenes. Another 2000s staple is the movie’s endearing, if slightly dubious, “adults suck” attitude, a sensibility perfectly befitting its teenage protagonists. From Kale’s asshole teacher to the disbelieving cops, the essential uselessness of the elder authority figures gives our young heroes a winning underdog quality.
Embodying this sullen, can’t-catch-a-break spirit is LaBeouf, who’s hugely likeable in the lead role, doing the very best version of his fast-talking smartass schtick. Charismatic and hip, but still believably awkward, he makes for a flawed, sympathetic every-teen. The movie’s other great performance comes from Morse, playing the wolf in sheep’s clothing with his trademark quiet intensity. He’s cold and imposing enough to be more than credible as a killer, but also unassuming enough to blend in as the average joe next door.
In spite of its teen-movie trappings, Disturbia is a surprisingly restrained thriller; taking its time to build suspense with a few well-placed fake-outs before the real action starts while still keeping a tight pace. This balancing act is at its nimble best in the second act, which boasts several expertly staged set-pieces, each one designed to create maximum tension. These moments of menace are nicely offset by the movie’s deft sense of humor, which never compromises the sense of threat but still provides welcome comic relief.
Disturbia’s finale pivots to all-out horror in a third-act showdown that sacrifices plausibility for violent, over-the-top thrills. But in this case, the slasher hijinks feel earned; they’re the crowd-pleasing payoff the whole movie has been building toward, and they’re executed with the same workmanlike skill. The ending ties up the plot in a neat bow, bookending the opening scenes in much the same way as its predecessor. Given its ultimate fidelity to its classic source material, Disturbia is unlikely to surprise anyone – except, perhaps, with how good it is.