A teenager (Shia LaBeouf) distraught with his father’s death gets into trouble and is sentenced to three months of house arrest. Without his X-Box, his iPod and iTunes, what is he to do? Armed with binoculars, he spies on his neighbors, especially now that a hot chick has moved next door. One night he suspects one of these nice suburbanites (David Morse) may have committed a murder in front of the whole neighborhood. Sound familiar?
The obvious influence in Disturbia is Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window, modeled for the early 21st century teenager’s sensibilities. Hitchcock’s film has been imitated, parodied, and homaged countless times (notably DePalma’s Body Double), and many a critic have pointed out that Rear Window is a perfect metaphor for the actual moviegoing experience, in a way a metafilm.
There is undoubtedly some truth to such a position, as in Rear Window and all its adept followers, the scenario of a voyeur (with all its sexual connotations) sitting, passively, unable to control or alter the events he observes — events that may hide secret motives or even lives — is almost irresistible, and represent the best moments of the narrative. This is particularly evident in Disturbia, which happens to follow the Rear Window model a little too closely, even if now the voyeur has at his disposition a whole range of hi-tech gadgets designed especially for spying on others. Shia LaBeouf’s Kale still only observes with his binoculars and camera (just like L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window) from his house windows. Some camera phones and live feeds do get into play briefly, but don’t add much. Last year, the independent Alone With Her presented a much more inventive spin: guy breaks into random girl’s apartment, installs dozens of hidden cameras and microphones and uses information he gets from this to seduce her. The film, however, like Disturbia, finds its solutions in clichéd psychopathology: the guy in Alone With Her ends up killing two people; and in Disturbia, the most deranged and perverse thing to be uncovered is a serial killer. And we’re really scared of them, right?
The only novelty is the plot device that keeps Kale stranded: his house arrest, which forces him to use an ankle monitor. It only allows him to go as far as the mailbox, and if he goes any further, the police shows up within seconds. This leads to mildly interesting situations, but most importantly, it leaves our hero completely able-bodied to fight. And fight is what he will, because another major influence is Wes Craven’s Scream series, not in its humor, but in the fact that its teenage heroes always wrestle with their enemies for long and dull stretches.
All that being said, Shia LaBeouf actually does a good job and remains charismatic. I’m sure we’ll be seeing lots of him in the future (not counting Transformers and Indy IV). The poor David Morse has been typecast for life. I’m not sure when he first started portraying this cold manic type (as far as 12 Monkeys?) but he seems to be stuck on this groove forever, as he did it last year in the TV show House. In Disturbia he seems more like a parody of himself.
And a final word about the ending. I know Rear Window ended like this, but that was 50s America — even Hitchcock got darker after that, take the ending of Vertigo or The Birds. The horror/suspense genre has come a long, long way, and even teenagers aren’t as stupid as that, as to end everything in idyllic perfection. Blue Velvet and Scream 3 did it too, but they were drenched in harsh irony. The “disturbia” of the title ends up being nothing more than one killer, an anomaly that once it’s been dealt with, everybody just gets on with their lives as if nothing ever happened; better even.