Appellate Judge Tom Becker has other ideas about the meaning of "neighborhood watch."
Our review of Disturbia (HD DVD), published September 13th, 2007, is also available.
Every killer lives next door to someone.
Disturbia opened in April of this year at No. 1 and kept its position for three weekends, finally being edged out by Spider Man 3. It remained in the top ten for nine weeks, grossing $80 million. This was particularly impressive for a film aimed at the under-25 crowd that does not feature big stars, big action, or big co-eds meeting their fates at the hands of a monster or maniac.
Facts of the Case
When we first see Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf, Holes), he seems like a nice kid. He's on a fishing trip with his dad and, on the drive back, the guys joke around on the phone with Kale's mom (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix). Then something terrible happens, and the next time we see Kale, it's a year later, and the 17-year-old is disaffected and surly. When an argument with a teacher turns physical, Kale is hauled before a judge, sentenced to three months of house arrest, and fitted with an ankle bracelet that squeals and blinks if it he goes more than 100 feet from his living room. The judge could have hit him with worse—Kale's been in a lot of trouble this year.
Kale's mother cancels his X-Box, his iTunes, and his cable, so he turns to low-tech for amusement: watching his neighbors with a pair of binoculars. When beautiful teen Ashley (Sarah Roemer, The Grudge 2) moves next door, Kale literally sets his sights on her.
But another neighbor has also caught Kale's eye, Mr. Turner (David Morse, The Rock). Why would this boring older guy be of interest to a kid like Kale? It seems Mr. Turner drives a classic Mustang, similar to the one police are looking for in connection with a missing woman. He moves plastic bags in and out of his house at odd times. Plus, he has a longhorn skull in his garage. Longhorns are from Texas, where several women were found murdered, some kidnapped in the same way that the missing woman was. And something strange happens when Turner brings a woman home.
Now Kale, Ashley, and his friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo, The Bedford Diaries) are convinced Turner is up to no good, and they bring video cameras, computers, and cell phones into their tracking game. But the kids had better work fast: Turner just asked Kale's mom on a date.
Director D.J. Caruso set out to make a John Hughes-style teen angst movie combined with a thriller, and the result largely succeeds. Kale and Ronnie are outsiders, and Kale has a scene with Ashley where he expresses dismay that she's "conforming" by having a party (that he can't attend) with "the jock and bimbo population." Yes, we've seen this before, but when the thriller part gets underway, the ante is upped. The film also has a sly sense of humor, particularly on the issue of privacy in a world where gadgetry has made that a luxury. Kale is alone, but his every move is being "watched" because of the tracking bracelet; he thinks nothing of stalking Turner based on suppositions and becomes wild-eyed when someone suggests that the man might just value his privacy: "But think about that! Why does he want his privacy?"
A big reason the movie works is Shia LaBeouf. Gangly and gawky, he is good-looking but not classically handsome; he is an everyman, and his performance moves the story. We feel for him when the isolation of his house arrest starts making him crazy, and we worry when we think that maybe his obsession with Turner is misguided, if maybe the clues he's seeing don't have some logical explanation. Kale is an edgy kid, and we get the sense he'd be no less alone without the confines of the ankle bracelet. It's no coincidence that his last name is Brecht. The hulking David Morse makes Turner an appropriately sinister suspect. They are a study in contrasts: Young Kale is high-strung and sloppy, while the mature Turner is placid, logical, and neat.
Notice two words that are missing from this review: "rear" and "window." Disturbia is a high-tech update of that Hitchcock classic, with an electronic ankle bracelet substituting for a plaster cast and digital video for a still camera. The classic voyeur tool, the binoculars, remains the same. Hitchcock, of course, is the gold standard, and Rear Window one of his shiniest, and most iconic, jewels: It's almost impossible to watch a movie about voyeurs without referencing James Stewart and his spyglasses. Any genre film measured against Hitchcock is going to take a beating.
On its own terms, Disturbia is solid and entertaining. Caruso builds suspense through situation and character, making the "jumps," when they happen, more effective.
The technical aspects of this release are very good, offering a sharp, clear picture and dynamic audio. The disc contains a number of extras of varying quality. A commentary track by Caruso, LaBeouf, and Roemer offers little in the way of insight about the film. It comes off like three people you've never met reminiscing about a good time they had and stopping occasionally to answer their cell phones. Compared to the commentary, the "Making of" featurette is a scholarly work, with input not only from all the featured actors (a lot from Morse, happily), but from the writers, production designer, and stunt coordinator as well. It's like a 14-minute Filmmaking 101 course, nothing new, but interesting. Serial Pursuit Trivia Pop-up Quiz is not a quiz at all but a series of pop-ups offering bits of information about the scene, the actors, or something related to what is happening onscreen ("The most widely distributed paper in the United States is USA Today"). It's cute, but distracting if you're watching the movie for the first time. The deleted scenes are mainly extensions of existing scenes with Moss (except for one, which helps explain one of Kale's discoveries and probably should have stayed in), and a Caruso-directed music video for the song "Don't Make Me Wait" is pleasant, if unexceptional. A stills gallery, outtakes, and trailers and previews for Disturbia and other films round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Disturbia works best when it's playing its thriller cards, that part of the story doesn't start until half an hour in, and the beginning feels rushed; it's hard to believe Kale can even get Ronnie interested with the flimsy "evidence" he's got, much less the more sophisticated Ashley.
There is a five-and-a-half minute prologue in which we meet a character who is shortly thereafter dispatched in a graphic car wreck. This is supposed to explain Kale's bad attitude, but do we really need such an elaborate explanation for teenage snarkiness? I think this whole sequence exists just so the trailer can feature a car crash. You know, it can't be a thriller unless it has airborne cars.
Caruso also drops the ball at the end of the film, which is viscerally thrilling but compromises the intelligence of the characters and the logic of what has gone on before.
Despite its flaws, Disturbia is a neat little thriller that offers good performances, wit, and some hard-earned suspense.
Kale is admonished to use his high-tech stalking acumen for more noble pursuits, like getting pictures of drunken, half-naked starlets. Not guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director D.J. Caruso and Actors Shia LeBeouf and Sarah Roemer
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.