The storyline of Disturbia is fairly predictable, which is the kiss of death for a suspense film. Another problem is that Kale is entirely unsympathetic. The script tries at first -- the crime for which he's placed under house arrest is one in which the audience is totally on his side, and it's obvious that his grief is a big reason behind his recent problems. Maybe it's because I'm closer to his mom's age than to his, but I felt like the kid needed a good smack in the head. He can't be bothered to do anything at home that isn't for his own personal pleasure, he's nasty to his mom and treats Ashley pretty shabbily at times. We never see much depth of character, but that's true of every character in Disturbia.
The teen-thriller Disturbia doesn't live up to the promise of its title. It isn't a bad movie, but you can find better movies in theaters right now, if you want to watch a good thriller. And if you want to stay home, you can just rent Rear Window, on which Disturbia is loosely based. Shia LaBeouf takes the Jimmy Stewart role, which at least is better than "Ice Cube plays the Cary Grant role." Apart from a contemporary setting, nothing about Disturbia gives it an advantage over the Hitchcock film. The film opens with Kale (LaBeouf) fishing with his dad, a stereotypical father-son bonding stereotypes, so you know everything is fine in Kale's world. But an unexpected tragedy puts a stop to that.
A year later, Kale is the sullenest of teens, and ends up in juvenile court after punching a teacher. He's sentenced to a summer of house arrest, working his mom Julie's (Carrie-Ann Moss) last nerve, and going stir-crazy. He finds a pair of binoculars and starts spying on the neighbors.Two in particular catch his interest: the new girl next door, Ashley (Sarah Roemer), and Mr. Turner (David Morse), whose car is suspiciously similar to that of a local murderer at large. Kale and his friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), eventually assisted by Ashley, start focusing their attention and their cameras on the mysterious Mr. Turner.
I think my favorite character was the cop who was related to the teacher Kale hit, who kept a close eye on Kale, and I'm sure I wasn't meant to sympathize with him. I did like the innovation of a house-arrest electronic bracelet substituting for a broken leg in keeping the protagonist at home, which was used to good effect. Weirdly enough, Disturbia lurks on the edge of teen comedy. Kale and Ronnie's lack of social skills with females is amusing. Ashley's antics in the swimming pool seem designed to recall that scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but Roemer can't top the young Phoebe Cates. The scenes in which the three teens interact have a strangely slow pace to them; they seem almost to drag, and the audience is eager to return to the suspenseful aspects of the story, predictable as that might be.
Ultimately, the film breaks its own rules. The attraction, which works so well in Rear Window, is that the audience sees what the teenagers see when they're spying, and we are drawn to the same conclusions. We know no more than they do, and we can share their voyeuristic thrills. Unfortunately, the film suddenly switches point of view and starts showing us scenes that the teenagers are unable to see, which ruins the original effect and lessens the suspense. The film tries to make up for this with lazy attempts at "cheap jump" moments, which didn't always work for me. The few scenes of violence aren't at all gory, probably to preserve a PG-13 rating. There are a few suspenseful moments, but the ending of the movie turns into a low-grade ripoff of Silence of the Lambs -- I wondered if they used the same sets. The cliche in which a character who appears to have been killed suddenly recuperates and is good as new was mocked so entertainingly in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that when it happened in Disturbia, all I could do was laugh at the movie (and wish I were watching the Shane Black film instead.)
D.J. Caruso also directed The Salton Sea, a film I enjoyed seeing a few years ago that did manage to maintain suspense and present a variety of interesting characters. I'm sorry that his latest film wasn't anywhere near as fascinating to watch. I saw Disturbia a week after I saw The Lookout, which affected my opinion of this film. Both films have a similar opening sequence, and both feature a young-adult cast in a suspenseful drama. it may seem like an unfair comparison, but The Lookout is so much better -- stellar performances, better dialogue, and a more character-driven story. Caruso and LaBeouf can't hold a candle to Scott Frank and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. If it's still playing in a theater near you, skip Disturbia and go see The Lookout instead.
(For another opinion on Disturbia, read Scott Weinberg's review from SXSW.)