One-time Disney kid Shia LaBeouf gets his star pass stamped in this teen-powered serial-killer film, inventively directed by D.J. Caruso. LaBeouf, a soulful-eyed wiseguy with a complex emotional repertoire, keeps the movie interesting even after utter predictability sets in.
He plays 17-year-old Kale, a good kid who starts going wrong after his father is killed in a highway accident (an out-of-the-blue double collision that launches the picture with a gut-slamming rush). After Kale slugs a needling teacher in school, a judge sentences him to three months’ house arrest, complete with an ankle alarm that’ll summon police if he wanders more than a hundred feet from home.
Initially, Kale’s new domestic regimen of nonstop junk TV and video games seems cool; but he soon grows bored, and starts examining the outside world, now beyond his reach, with fresh interest. Training a pair of binoculars on a neighboring house, he sees that a new family has moved in, complete with a thoroughbred daughter named Ashley (Sarah Roemer), who’s agreeably forgetful about drawing the blinds when she’s removing her clothes. Meanwhile, in the house on the other side of Kale’s, there lives a tall, quiet man named Turner (David Morse), who drives a vintage Ford Mustang with a dented fender. This is interesting, because Kale has just seen a TV news story about an unsolved kidnapping in which a girl was abducted by someone who was reported to be driving an old Mustang. With a dented fender.
Here we are, not even halfway into the movie, and already we can see what’s going on, and make a pretty good guess about what’s coming up. The scenario is the same one that served Alfred Hitchcock so handily in the 1954 “Rear Window.” In that film, though, the housebound protagonist had only a long-range camera lens with which to scrutinize a suspicious neighbor. In “Disturbia,” the mechanics of observation have been nimbly updated with camera phones and video surveillance systems. And while Hitchcock’s subsidiary theme — the obsessive nature of human voyeurism — may seem quaint in an omni-voyeuristic age, it’s an evergreen plot trigger: We ignore the sight of a man dragging a bloodstained bag into his garage (as Kale watches Turner doing late one night) at what could be our own peril. Especially after he starts watching us back.
Director Caruso, noted for the stylish touch he also brought to “The Salton Sea” (2002), invests this picture with an unflagging narrative energy — his compact staging and lively camera angles keep things popping along, and the lighting illuminates more than just the actors. (Kale’s bedroom, a shrine to teen electronics, has a techno-twinkly glow, while Turner’s driveway, right below Kale’s window, is floodlit with a baleful glare.)
But this is a genre movie, and the gods of genre must be served. So along with the requisite pretty girl next door (coolly underplayed by Roemer), there’s also an antic best friend named Ronnie (the hyper-effusive Aaron Yoo) on hand to provide comic relief. And since it wouldn’t do, in a teen-angled picture, to have parents around to cloud the air of sovereign self-reliance, the screenplay simply removes them. Kale’s mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) makes occasional appearances to fret and grumble (and later to shriek), but Ashley’s elders are so little-glimpsed they’re almost theoretical, and Ronnie might well be an orphan. (None of these three appears to spend any time in school, either, although Kale has noted, from his bedroom spy nest, that Ashley actually reads books.)
Genre strictures also dictate the movie’s conclusion, although not the freight-train inevitability with which we can see it hurtling toward us. Still, Caruso hits all the traditional thriller notes with a gratifying ping, and until the picture lurches into grisly mayhem at the end, it’s a fun ride. (Even the mayhem, which alters the film’s tone, is efficiently fearful.)
“Disturbia” probably wouldn’t have worked nearly so well with different actors in the two key roles. The reliably superb David Morse, with his surly-cherub face, can downshift into deadpan malevolence with the merest sigh (he has Anthony Hopkins’ gift in this regard); he brings an unsettling edge to the role of the murderous Turner. And Shia LaBeouf, at the age of 20, has what seems to be an effortless command of emotional tones: he shows us Kale’s sorrow, his anger, his courage, and his adolescent yearning, and sometimes he shows them to us all at once. This is his movie, and even when it starts sagging toward the end, he picks it up and runs with it.
(“Disturbia” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
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