I rather enjoy my privacy.
—Turner (David Morse)
For its first hour or so, Disturbia is a half-smart, teen-appealing update of Rear Window. Teetering between weirdly mesmerizing and inexplicably clumsy, D.J. Caruso’s film offers a worthy investigation of voyeurism, as it pervades current popular culture in the form of reality TV and user-generated internet videos. Eventually, it lapses into a much less compelling investigation, concerning a banal serial killer who menaces clueless women, including the hero’s mother.
That hero is Kale (Shia LaBeouf). Following an idyllic fishing-in-the-mountains scene (which the film, not a little smug about it, rather pronounces a cliché, with corny dialogue and plinky soundtrack), Kale is duly traumatized by a car accident. “One year later,” he appears sulky and depressed at school, sleeping in class, his hoodie hood pulled low over his headie. When his teacher calls him out, the boy punches him smack in the face.
On MTV, he’d face Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura. But here, Kale gets off easy, sentenced to three months of house arrest, complete with an ankle bracelet that inspires the obligatory Martha Stewart joke. He doesn’t appear to notice how lucky he is to have Viola Davis playing Detective Parker, the woman who explains the system to him (he must remain 1ithin 100 feet of the box; if he offends, he’s off to actual detention; he needs to find something “productive” to do or else he’ll go crazy), but you will be grateful beyond measure. As Davis delivers a smart, delicate performance in an ostensibly throwaway role, you’re reminded that this particular movie depends pretty much completely on performers to carry the second-rate dialogue (she and LeBeouf do exceptional carrying).
Life gets worse for Kale. His real estate agent mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss)—who appears only when his plot needs a little nudge into complication; otherwise, she seems a very hands-off parent—shuts off the iTunes and Xbox subscriptions. “My mom is transformed,” he whines, “She’s a dictator.” Apparently this is what happens when Trinity’s confined to showing houses in the burbs. It’s also apparently the last straw for poor Kale, who’s left to build a Tower of Twinkie and watch what his mother terms “trash TV” (girls in bikinis), with Afroman’s “Because I Got High” so poignant on the soundtrack. With his best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) off on vacation with real girls in bikinis (his infrequent reports by phone leave Kale titillated and aggravated), Kale turns to his last option: he spies on his neighbors.
Who knew the lives in dull-seeming “Disturbia” could be so compelling? As Kale exults when Ronnie returns, “This is reality without the TV!” The camera takes Kale’s limited perspective (cf. Jimmy Stewart’s long lens camera) as he peers through binoculars and, eventually, a mini-DV camera that allows zooming and panning. He sees a man cheating on his wife, little boys who watch porn on TV, and the odious Turner (David Morse). Intrigued by this fellow’s vintage Mustang (the same car spotted at the scene of a woman’s disappearance) and dates (a woman appears to be terrified by a knife), Kale soon finds encouragement from Ronnie and a new neighbor who first appears in daisy dukes (compare this to Grace Kelly’s spectacular introduction in the Hitchcock, and you have a sense of how this movie is headed off its rails). Sweet, tanned, and prone to sunbathe and do yoga near her open window, Ashley (Sarah Roemer) seems an ideal distraction.
Kale contrives to meet Ashley (“I’m from the city,” she announces, moved here against her will by angry parents), then impresses her with his wit and charm. If anyone but LeBeouf delivered the speech in which he lists every detail he’s noticed about her routine—she reads “substantial books” and not just Us Weekly, she looks at herself in the mirror as if pondering her place in the universe—leads her to forgive his oddly possessive behavior. Once Ronnie shows up with a pile of surveillance equipment scarfed from an uncle he calls “kind of a sociopath,” the kids are ready to go: they start recording Turner’s movements, Kale convinced that his vintage Mustang is the one he’s read about in connection with a “missing woman.”
The more frantic Kale’s perceptions become, the more interesting the film’s look: recurring close-ups and bad framing approximate his untrained looking, as he tries to find Turner with the camera while not being spotted himself. Once the film lurches into the cat-and-mousing between Kale and Turner, it loses its initial idiosyncratic allure: when he notices Kale looking, Turner turns up in his kitchen, carrying groceries for Julie, looming in the doorway. Ronnie and Ashley’s recon missions lead to the usual sorts of tensions, as Kale nervously directs their activities while monitoring Turner’s.
For all its revisiting of Rear Window‘s basic themes, however, Disturbia is most effective when it points to the differences between then and now. “The world is in a heightened state of paranoia,” Turner observes, which leads simultaneously to meddling and withdrawal. While Kale certainly suffers from a contemporary over-stimulation and privilege, he’s also confined. While his ability to watch is enhanced exponentially, his mobility is ironically limited by surveillance technology rather than a literal broken leg.
Increasingly agitated by the sheer numbers of ways he has to watch the violence and sex unfolding before him—computer screen, cell phone, DV camera, binoculars, even his own eyes—Kale is eventually unable to choose one or focus clearly. The last act’s descent into stalker movie silliness is too bad, because until then, Disturbia offers a mostly thoughtful look at looking. If Kale sees too much, he might also learn to be responsible for how he reads.