Disturbi-allusions

The first thing one realizes about Disturbia is that it’s not afraid to bang you over the head with its origins.  Rather than try to hide how derivative it is, it proudly signposts.  Basically, the film is Hamlet through Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

After opening in a pristine mountainous setting, where father and son fish, enjoy a coke, and have the clichéd chat, where Kale sarcastically admits he’s old enough to make it on his own—a cheerful commercial from the have a coke and a smile era—danger rapidly approaches.  The first signpost is the huge SUV that bears down on father and son on the highway, which not coincidentally, is first glimpsed through the rear window of a car as Kale (Shia Leboef) glances up to see while he chats with his mother on a cell phone.  The SUV cuts them off and obscures another car as his father takes the phone away only moments before they collide with a parked vehicle.  I don’t think it gives away much to reveal here that Kale’s father perishes in the accident.

From here Rear Window takes over.  Kale is confined to house arrest after “popping” his Spanish teacher, who mentions Kale’s father while humiliating him in class for not preparing his Spanish homework.  Like Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), who has a broken leg in Rear Window, Kale is inspired toward voyeurism by immobilization.  In his case the immobilization comes in the form of a tracking device attached to his leg for a period of three months.  

Where Disturbia shines is in its portrayal of the suburbs.  No detail has been spared in showing us that something is wrong with every family on the block.  Three young kids down the block ceaselessly attempt to annoy Kale, even going so far as to pull the old flaming bag of feces on the porch trick.  What’s especially bizarre about this is that Kale tries to extinguish the bag in his socks.  Why?  Infidelities, familial squabbles between kids who refuse to obey their parents only to rush into conformity with their peers, and of course, the inevitable serial killer on the block make every house in the ‘burbs a festering bastion of blight beneath the well tended lawns, swimming pools, full refrigerators, and orderly garages.  Just as they are stuffed with technology these houses are replete with dangers.

Like Rear Window in which Jeffries used his camera to drop the veil of privacy in an urban apartment building Disturbia shows us how cameras, cell phones, computers, and other surveillance mechanisms destroy the illusion of privacy in the suburbs.  There’s even a rather humorous scene where Kale uses his iPod to break up the party his neighbor, and love interest, Ashley (Sarah Roemer) has by blasting the old Minnie Ripperton song “Lovin You” from speakers on his roof.  The message is essentially the same.  The problem with the city was people, and, it turns out, people live in the suburbs too.  Interestingly, Ashley’s family moved to the suburbs at her mother’s suggestion because city life offered too many “temptations” for her father.  Surprise, he falls right back into his old habits in the suburbs, but somehow, as Kale suggests, it’s better because there’s more stuff.

There’s a post 9-11 aspect to the suspense though.  Like so many of the torture-porn genre films that have followed the attacks and subsequent US retaliation (notably Saw and Hostel), the film references a collusion between technology and torture.  But Disturbia isn’t very graphic in that sense.  The killer, Mr. Turner (David Morse), has a surgical room in his house, but only once do we see blood splatter.  In a clear reversal of the Carol Clover, final girl fantasy, where the heroine (and it’s always, or at least always used to be a woman) is chased into a creepy place, often the killer’s lair, Kale finds himself in Mr. Turner’s house, which, like all good suburban homes is full of secret doorways, hidden chambers, basements with rotten floor boards which lead to deeper basements, and of course, plenty of dead bodies.  

Disturbia starts banging us over the head when Kale’s mother (Carrie Anne Moss) falls for her serial killer neighbor.  Kale’s inner Hamlet starts to surface, and we know that Kale will have to kill this false father figure to save his mother, as well as Ashley, and his best friend Ronnie (Aaron Roo).  So the last 20 minutes of the film substitute scare tactics for genuine suspense, but it never gives up on trying to throw us off the track.  There is a point where you almost think Kale may be blamed for everything.  He is a juvenile delinquent after all, and he keeps violating his house arrest.  Kale is vindicated in the end, however, and Disturbia never takes itself seriously enough to collapse under the weight of all the films it tries to imitate.  With fine performances by the lead actors Disturbia shows that if you’re going to be derivative, it helps to copy the classics.

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: September 2007.