Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Written by: Christopher B. Landon, Carl Ellsworth
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Morse, Aaron Yoo, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Matt Craven
Released: 2007 / Genre: Suburban Paranoia/Murder-mystery / Country: USA / IMDB
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If the best thing about Disturbia is how it updates the age-old story of the mysterious next-door neighbour for a 21st century audience groomed on mobile phones, Ipods, and online gaming, we’re clutching at straws. I’m talking about the sort of straws Tom Hanks couldn’t get his hands on in The ‘Burbs (there was no following people around taking pictures on phones, or getting mini-DV footage of the culprit doing nasty deeds). Yet he, and the film, was better for it. Indeed, dress-up any bad movie in all the bells and whistles you can find from jump cuts to scantily-clad young actresses to pop culture references and you’re still left with a bad, uninspired cinematic experience.
Director D. J. Caruso has potted around the film industry as a producer and second unit director on many throwaway Hollywood movies of the past few years. His notable work on the poor sequel to Stakeout and the mildly entertaining Drop Zone provide clues of his inspiration when at the helm, but it’s his own films that give a clear indication why Disturbia is just another notch on his C.V. that fails to succeed. One of the major problems I had with the movie was how it appeared to be two different films pieced together at around the forty minute mark. You can stick half an apple and half an orange together and call it original but what you really have is a rather odd looking fruit salad. When he makes it work in his 2002 thriller The Salton Sea it’s intriguing and entertaining, but when it doesn’t (Taking Lives didn’t know whether it was Seven or a feature episode of The X Files, and likewise Two For The Money tried to be too many things and was let down by a poor third act) it’s an unfortunate but glaring example of a director trying to be better than he is.
In Disturbia it’s unclear whether Caruso wants to play on suburban culture (the sort of American dream paranoia characterised by 1950s television, and youth culture and the breakdown of the family unit in seventies movies by Spielberg and Lucas) or indeed homage the techniques and style of Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers. Certainly, there’s obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Spielberg/Lucas protégé Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath, but Disturbia fails to live up to its inspirations. Because the film is so derivative it becomes far too predictable and loses any suspense the director attempts to build in the final third. It’s far too easy to spot what could be termed the ‘binocular shock reveal’, where a long lens is used to track around a position in space – for example empty windows in an apartment block or house – and suddenly someone or something appears in full view. It’s even easier to spot ‘whodunnit’ by unoriginal red-herrings that, because of their overuse, act as giant arrows pointing directly at those culpable.
Yet, perhaps the worse thing is that it takes forever for the film to get going. We’re forced to watch American Pie without the jokes for forty minutes as, after a good set-up, the plot meanders around Kale Brecht’s electronically monitored house arrest, his frustrating attempts to occupy himself (I suppose if this was American Pie he’d be masturbating furiously, but Caruso has him downloading music, playing online gaming, and testing the range of the electronic tag strapped to his ankle), and spying on the neighbours. It could have been so much fun with a bit of mystery and some oddball characters but Caruso forgets about plot development or the themes of loss established in the opening sequence, deciding to have Brecht vie for the attentions of the beautiful girl next door. When the characters eventually decide that something nasty is going on and investigate, the audience has already been lost. It all untangles so quickly you don’t have a chance to take it in, and there’s very little to care about. Caruso makes the cardinal sin of creating people who you can sympathise with (and therefore don’t want to see come to any harm) but fails to ever put them in a situation where you genuinely believe they are in danger. Even when the annoying best friend Ronnie seems to be a goner, Caruso has Brecht casually playing tonsil tennis with Ashley Carlson (Sarah Roemer). Is he not upset about losing his friend? Of course he isn’t because Ronnie is still alive and kicking, making the supposedly surprising reveal of Ronnie’s reappearance a complete failure.
Essentially, D. J. Caruso’s film wants to be part Rear Window, part The ‘Burbs, part What Lies Beneath, but ends up like an unfunny version of American Pie meets The Girl Next Door with a murder-mystery lumped on the end. Disturbia’s crowded collection of influences, its director who tries to do more than his limited talent allows, and its untidy, predictable script, make for a viewing that’s as uneasy as the movie title would suggest. And sadly, that’s not a compliment.
Review by Daniel Stephens