You may chafe at his smug demeanor, but it’s hard to fault his skills as an actor: He has the crack timing and steely determination of a pro. There’s no question he can anchor a big-budget Hollywood movie. Whether or not he can turn tap water like Disturbia into wine — or at least a decent nonalcoholic beer — is another story. The teen thriller bears all the hallmarks of modern-day movie-by-committee filmmaking: A voyeur-mystery premise that rips off a masterpiece (Rear Window) just enough to avoid paying royalties, a director-for-hire who cut his teeth on the small screen (D.J. Caruso), and most grievously, an R-rating that’s been edited down to a preteen-friendly PG-13. (Meaning all those 10-year-old girls who crushed on Shia in Disney’s Holes can now go see him do battle with a serial-killer-rapist.)
For an hour or so, though, it seems as if this might be one of those happy instances where the studio system actually works. Set in an exceedingly posh neighborhood where the improbably nice “problem” kid Kale (LaBeouf) is sentenced to house arrest and falls for the impossibly hot girl next door (Sarah Roehmer), Disturbia carefully ratchets up suspense, and is all the better for it. Caruso is slick enough to keep things moving at a steady clip. He smooths over a script that makes only the shallowest attempt at character development (did we really have to see Kale’s dad die a grisly death in the first five minutes?) and is riddled with holes so big you can put your fist through them (where, exactly, did those kids get blueprints for someone else’s house?). And Caruso is good with actors: Everyone from Kale’s friends to perennial creepo David Morse (doing his best Jon Voight impersonation as the possibly murderous neighbor) is in sync, even if it’s sad to see talented Matrix refugee Carrie-Anne Moss relegated to the role of the haggard, conveniently never-home mom.
But any hint that the film might transcend its stock, teen-boy-fantasy origins and join the ranks of a classic edgy, suburban dystopia like Risky Business or Poltergeist is eradicated by the resolution, a frantic mess of thunder, lightning, eye-gouging and countless other horror-movie clichés. Evoking Hitchcock will always get you into trouble, but the film’s real failing is that its final half-hour seems lifted from last year’s dreadful teen-scream remake When a Stranger Calls.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].