Director: D.J. Caruso
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Sarah Roemer, Carrie Anne Moss, David Morse, Aaron Yoo, Matt Craven
Running Time: 105 min.
*** (out of ****)
Disturbia attempts to marry two genres that really have no business appearing together in the same film: The teen movie and the Hitchcockian thriller. It executes one extremely well and the other at least somewhat competently. That I'm giving it three stars can only mean I'm feeling very generous and forgiving lately because, truthfully, the movie's a mess. However, when it was over I was forced to admit that for what it was trying to accomplish it mostly succeeded as well as it possibly could.
Whether a film like this should have even been attempted in the first place is a different matter altogether, but I've struggled to come up with any ideas that could have possibly made it any better. It features an at least partially clever script, appealing performances, is well directed, yet somehow manages to come off feeling routine. Maybe that's because it starts out so strongly and builds its characters so well early on that I was just hoping for more. What we end up getting is serviceable, if not very imaginative. Unusually for a teen movie, its strong suite lies in the acting and chemistry between the two leads. The movie is really bolstered by a strong lead performance from an actor many can't stand and an impressive co-starring debut from an actress who commands our attention, almost to the point where time seems to stand still whenever she's onscreen.
The first three or four scenes that open Disturbia are so gripping and tension filled that the movie really has its work cut out for it in somehow delivering on the promise of them. Right out of the gate Director D.J. Caruso succeeds in giving us one of the best prologues I've seen in a movie in quite some time as he opens with the fishing trip of our main character, Kale (Shia LeBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven). In just a few minutes Caruso succeeds in establishing a believable father-son bond between the two and getting us to really care about them in a way that doesn't feel forced. Then he pulls the rug out from under us with a viscerally horrific car accident that kills the father. The scene is not only scarier than anything else that comes later in the film, but one of the most terrifying car crashes I've seen depicted onscreen in recent memory.
We then flash forward a little over a year later where a distant, troubled Kale stands in front of a judge for punching out a teacher who really had it coming. He's sentenced to house arrest where he must where a Martha Stewart-style ankle bracelet that goes into a blinking and bleeping frenzy if he steps outside the regulated 100 foot parameter. What's interesting here is that no one seems to have the slightest bit of sympathy for what this teen is going through after losing his father. Or if they do, they're not showing it. His mom (Carrie Anne Moss, an off-kilter casting choice), realizing his house arrest amounts to nothing more than a vacation, cancels his X-Box and I-Tunes subscriptions so he's forced to stare out his bedroom window with binoculars all day. He witnesses such exciting events as extra-marital affairs and kids watching porn channels in their room. Relief finally arrives in the form of hot new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer), whose hobbies include lots of swimming, sunbathing on her roof and prancing around her bedroom topless. Kale starts to think this may not be such a bad deal after all.
Joined by his hyperactive best friend Ronnie (an entertainingly goofy Aaron Yoo) they watch her every move until, much to their surprise, she shows up at the doorstep (soaking wet). Ashley's reaction later on to the revelation he's been watching her results in the film's most memorable and quotable line, providing a hint that the best movie of the year could have come out of this material if they wanted it to. For a while it looked like it was going in that direction as Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth's script has a great ear for how teens really talk and act. And in what may be the film's biggest surprise, LeBeouf and Roemer nearly ignite the screen with their chemistry. If the film ended at this point I would have given it four stars.
So far the impossible has been accomplished. Caruso has given us a teen movie with intelligence and in minimal time gotten us to not only care about the characters but sold us a believable romance in a matter of minutes. Most dramas can't accomplish effectively in their entire running time what happens in the first 45 minutes of what should be a throwaway teen movie. It's clear Caruso (who directed 2002's The Salton Sea starring Val Kilmer) really knows what he's doing and it appeared he had the script to support him. I remember thinking here that even if the rest of the film collapses I would still consider it a success. Remember that statement.
You may have noticed I referred to the film earlier as "Hitchcockian" and if you've seen the trailers and commericials you know exactly why. What comes next is disappointing, but inevitable unfortunately. The teens discover their creepy neighbor, Mr. Turner (David Morse) just might be…A MURDERER! I don't know what could have given it away. Maybe the prostitutes arriving but strangely never leaving, his fascination with knives, or the blood soaked plastic bags being dragged in and out of his house. They think this may be the guy behind all these mysterious disappearances on the news. That's interesting, but what's more interesting is this psychopath who doesn't look like he has a job other than killing people can afford the live in the richest suburb in America. The problem isn't so much that this storyline involving a murderer next door is executed poorly because it's not. It's just so…ordinary. There's no mystery as to the man's guilt or what he's doing.
As I watched I tried to think of other possible scenarios the main characters could uncover that would make this story more intriguing but I couldn't. Of course, that's the screenwriters' job, not mine. I almost wished Ashley would throw down the binoculars, turn to Kale and say, "Why are we doing this?" She couldn't though because that would mean we couldn't get the obligatory scene where he's smelling her hair from behind as she looks out the window. It just doesn't seem to fit that these two, who up to until now were so engaging in a perfect movie with surprisingly clever wit and dialogue, are thrown into a paint-by-the-numbers thriller. Besides conflicting with the entire tone of first half of the movie, it feels like the script had a lobotomy, deteriorating out of nowhere into a slasher film.
As disappointed as I am with that development though, I have to admit it is suspenseful and done well, thanks in no small part to the performance of David Morse as Mr. Turner. Morse is a phenomenally gifted character actor who's appeared in films far superior to this and he invests Turner with so much more depth than the one-note psycho he's written as. He has a scene alone in a parking garage with Roemer where he's so creepy it becomes almost too uncomfortable to watch. Supposedly Morse stayed in character during the entire shoot, which doesn't surprise me since as the guy's a consummate pro as an actor. When I saw his name on the credits I knew we were guaranteed at least one outstanding performance. Caruso should count his lucky stars he even got him for this role because it scares me to imagine how much worse the last act of the film would have been without his presence. Still, despite the danger Morse's character conveys, you can't shake the feeling everyone's just playing super sleuth in this section of the film.
I know a lot of people have problems with LeBeouf as an actor, but ironically, it's his grounded performance as a regular teen that helps save the movie when it takes the path into nonsense. Because we believe him as this everyday kid, we end up buying it when he's in serious danger. He's been accused of playing the super sensitive geek card in every film but it works for him here and he gets the job done. Ryan Gosling or Jospeh Gordon Levitt he ain't but he doesn't have to be for this kind of role, and Caruso is smart enough not to have him try.
Then there's Sarah Roemer. While she may immediately grab your attention because of how she looks (though she isn't what you'd call conventionally pretty in the "Hollywood" sense), there's something else there. It's a presence and natural magnetism she has that isn't easy to describe or explain. You can't look away and end up hanging on every word she says. I'm not even sure it has much to do with acting or it's anything that can be taught, as even some great actors don't command the screen as well as she does here. She just has "it." They'll be plenty of time to see what she can do as an actress, but I do know this would have been a far different (and likely inferior) movie without her in it. She's definitely someone to keep an eye on. We won't have a choice. Carrie-Ann Moss is an interesting choice for what amounts to basically a throwaway role as Kale's mom, but she's surprisingly believable in her few scenes as a caring parent. I'd say the role is underwritten, but given the direction of the script, I'm not too sure as there's really nothing more that character could have possibly contributed.
Disturbia has been labeled everywhere as a virtual remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window and while the inspiration in concept is clearly there, the script cleverly manages to avoid all these comparisons early on by updating the story enough that it feels completely fresh and different. It's at least smart enough to know that in the 21st century being sentenced to house arrest can be a blast, especially if you live in a house like Kale does here. The production and set designers deserve a bonus for not only making the house look that good, but making it look lived in as well. His mom cutting him off from his entertainment world was the type of small, believable detail I don't think many other movies would have even thought to bother with.
Modern technology such as cell phones and digiicams were enough to make the voyeuristic aspect of the story seem new and compelling as well. Unfortunately, this just makes the disintegration of the film into genre thriller territory all the more disappointing when it finally comes. For the teen audience this is primarily aimed for though this movie couldn't possibly work any better and it's no wonder it cleaned up at the box office. What's advertised is exactly what you get. I'm sure they're probably planning a sequel as I type this and I can't say I mind since the overall concept is intriguing and more could definitely be done with it.
There are some genuine thrills and tension in the final act, but still the feeling hovers that something deeper should have been wrung from this material. It looked like it would really go there, but instead it just settles. It's almost unfathomable that a film with this many flashes of pure brilliance comes out on the other side with just a mild recommendation from me. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe combining these two genres was a mistake from the get-go and what we have here is the best that could have come from it. What I do know, however, is that it's been a while since I've felt this conflicted about a film. It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but Disturbia can't help but feel like a good thriller with a great movie hidden inside, just begging to come out.