Disturbia (2007)

Disturbia first published by Film4

Summary: D.J. Caruso makes neurotic voyeurs of us all in this upgrade of Rear Window for the internet generation.

Review: “Can he see us?”, asks teenager Kale (Shia LaBeouf)

“No, he can’t see us,” replies his father Daniel (Matt Craven), “but he can feel us watching.”

Despite having a title that suggests the darker side of suburban living, Disturbia in fact opens in the great outdoors, with an untamed river running through a sweeping mountain vista. Kale’s father will shortly be killed in an accident on the drive back home, but before that can happen, he dispenses advice to his son on the baiting and trapping of fish – advice that will prove peculiarly relevant to Kale’s future experiences.

These days, the term ‘Hitchcockian’ has become lazy journalese for ‘suspenseful’, and is applied to virtually any old (or new) thriller. Disturbia, however, is the real deal, not least because it is a barely concealed web-generation update of Hitch’s 1954 classic Rear Window, in which James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photographer becomes convinced that one of the neighbours he has been spying on has committed cold-blooded murder. 

One year after his father’s death, Kale is put under house arrest for violently assaulting his Spanish teacher, with an electronic band round his anklet that immediately summons the police if he steps so much as a foot outside the family home’s garden perimeter. Mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss) works long hours away from their suburban LA bungalow, so a bored and lonely Kale begins spying on the lives of his neighbours to while away his time of imprisonment.

Soon he and his buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) have become obsessed with observing the small-time realities just outside Kale’s windows – especially Ashley (Sarah Roemer), the pretty girl who has just moved in next door. Then one night Kale sees – or thinks he sees – quiet Mr Turner (David Morse) acting very suspiciously out back. What begins as a voyeuristic diversion turns into a full-time stakeout, as Kale grows ever more convinced that the neighbourhood’s keenest gardener might also just be a serial killer – and, like a glass-eyed fish hiding beneath the surface, Mr Turner knows he is being watched. 

“That’s either the creepiest or the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Ashley after she learns of Kale’s scopophiliac interest in her. It is to LaBeouf’s immense credit that he keeps his potentially repellent protagonist both human and likable throughout – while conversely Morse inflects Mr Turner with a persistent creepiness even when he is engaged in the most harmless of activities. Their performances are just two of the things that ensure Disturbia is genre cinema at its slickest – to which one might add the assured direction of D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea, TV’s The Shield), who can crank tension out of the most mundane suburban details.

There is, however, a fundamental problem with Disturbia. The adolescent viewers at whom it appears to be chiefly aimed may not be so perturbed, but others more familiar with the history of its plot-type are unlikely to be very much surprised by anything that happens in Disturbia. Sure, it may throw in references to iPods, Xboxes, digicams, cellphones and YouTube, but it never once veers from a formula as old as Hitchcock’s original Rear Window – a formula that has been replayed since in Body Double (1984), The ‘Burbs (1989) and Arlington Road (1999). This lack of originality serves to defuse the film’s all-important suspense, as there is never really any doubt where Disturbia is headed – and where it is headed is exactly where it goes. That said, know what is coming, as Hitchcock himself well knew, creates its own suspense.

So sit back, admire the film’s craft and professionalism, enjoy its dark (but not very dark) humour, even feel free (as invited) to ogle the fresh young things on display – but just don’t expect the unexpected. Perhaps Disturbia is too aware that it is being watched to let itself stand out from the crowd. 

VerdictDisturbia goes through the Hitchcockian motions with great skill and good humour – but amongst the many pleasure it has to offer its viewers, there are few real surprises.

© Anton Bitel