““Disturbia” is a derivative, but surprisingly effective thriller that is carried by the charm of Shia LeBeouf. He is perhaps the least likely rising star currently working in Hollywood and the best because of it.
LeBeouf has the same sort of off-beat charisma of young John Cusack and Tom Hanks. When “Disturbia” devolves into a genre pic, LeBeouf’s light comedic touch and low key persona makes the film seem smarter and stronger than it truly is. Much like his leading role in the summer blockbuster “Transformers,” he makes this material work better than it should. With these two films LeBeouf proves he is a star.
In “Disturbia,” LeBeouf’s Kale is an emotionally distraught teen, who gets into a long list of trouble following the death of his father. Kale finds himself under house arrest after he punches out an antagonizing teacher. When his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, “The Matrix”) cuts him off from his video games and internet, Kale’s eyes begin to wander to the suburban windows that surround him. Soon he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (David Morse, “16 Blocks”) is a murder.
“Disturbia” is essentially a teen version of “Rear Window,” but the film is better than that description. Despite the teen cast this rises above the dreaded teen movie branding and plays as a straight thriller. There are teen hijinx early on to help establish Kale as a likable protagonist before things turn dark, but the film is less pandering the average teen film.
The film is almost able to justify its update of the Hitchcock classic because of the advancement of technology. Where Jimmy Stewart only had a telephoto lens, Kale cleverly utilizes digital video cameras, cell phone cameras and his computer during his community watch.
Like “Rear Window,” the film is about voyeurism and its dangers. Before Kale’s binoculars start peering into the bloody garage of Morse’s Mr. Turner the object of Kale’s gaze is his sexy new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer, “The Grudge 2”). When Kale is caught as a peeping Tom, Ashley doesn’t call the cops, but joins in on the spying.
There’s an interesting dynamic that could’ve been explored here: what happens when a voyeur’s subject crosses to the other side? But screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (“Red Eye”) misses the opportunity to explore this and the chance to create a strong female character in the process.
Instead he reduces Ashley – flatly played by Roemer – to nothing more than a male fantasy come true. She is a cookie cutter love interest there to make out with the hero and need rescuing. It is insulting to the viewer and the film’s only true false step, aside from a few stretches of credibility when the film kicks into full thriller mode.
Luckily Morse’s performance more than compensates for things. He is menacing without being over-the-top. Morse is soft spoken, even congenial and does a nice job throwing at least some ambiguity into whether he truly is a murderer. When he realizes he is being watched it is fun to watch Morse toy with LeBeouf, especially in scenes where he flirts with Kale’s mom.
The film’s final act turns to horror movie cliché and is a bit preposterous, but is so well executed that the ridiculousness doesn’t occur until the credits roll. Director D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives”), who does a good job keeping things on edge throughout, lets the tension snap in the final third and earns some good jumps.
The best scenes of the last stretch involve Kale’s comedic sidekick Ronnie (the funny Aaron Yoo) sneaking into Turner’s garage. The sequence is seen through Ronnie’s shaky, grainy digital camera and earns some “Blair Witch”-esque scares.
“Disturbia” is certainly flawed, but in the end it entertains. If you are willing to suspend disbelief and go with the flow a good time can be had.