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The Killer Next Door

Stop me if this sounds familiar: a character witnesses his neighbor murder someone (or it looks like a murder). No one believes him and, along with his girlfriend and/or friend, he's forced to play detective hoping that the police will eventually believe him. But the killer catches on to the hero and he becomes the killer's next target. Sounds like Alfred Hitchcock's classic mystery/thriller, Rear Window, right?

It's not, actually. It’s D.J. Caruso's (Two for the Money, Taking Lives, The Salton Sea) latest film, Disturbia, an unexpectedly suspenseful, if often contrived teen thriller. Disturbia is short on subtext, short on social commentary, but it rarely lets down its audience, thanks to glossy visuals, tight pacing, and surprisingly literate dialogue.

Moody, uncommunicative, and nursing an SUV-sized trauma, Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) gets arrested for assaulting his high school Spanish-language teacher. A semi-sympathetic judge sentences Kale to three months house arrest. An electronic ankle bracelet limits Kale’s movements to a 100-foot perimeter around his house. Frustrated with Kale's unrepentant behavior, Kale's mother, Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss), bans Kale from playing online video games and downloading music. Bored, Kale picks up a pair of binoculars and starts to spy on his neighbors, including the girl-next-door, Ashley (Sarah Roemer), a recent transplant from the big city, and far more dangerously, Robert Turner (David Morse), a neighbor with a few eccentric habits.

As Kale continues to spy on Turner, he begins to suspect that Turner's behind the recent disappearance of a local woman and that he may be a serial killer. While romancing Sarah, Kale enlists his best friend, Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), to assist gathering evidence. Turner, though, catches on that he's being watched and thus begins a cat-and-mouse game, with Sarah, Ronnie, and Julie in danger. Kale also has to contend with an entirely unsympathetic, disbelieving police officer, Officer Gutierrez (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who just happens to be a close relative to Kale's high school teacher. The collection of clues, however, suggest Kale and his friends are on to something.

Written by Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth, Disturbia doesn't do much to shake its association with Rear Window, down to its trio of characters, multiple screens or windows for the mobility-challenged central character to peer into, but without the seriocomic exploration of marriage and courtship Hitchcock and his screenwriter, John Michael Hayes, layered into the mystery/thriller storyline. Rear Window is a sophisticated, subtext-heavy film (e.g., voyeurism, spectatorship, and the pitfalls of monogamy). Disturbia isn’t particularly deep. Subtext or social commentary are pushed into the background, but in updating the storyline to a contemporary, relatively affluent setting, it also accepts that the so-called surveillance society is here.

Look at Disturbia closely, though, and it quickly becomes evident that it doesn’t make much sense. Where Rear Window’s scenario skirted plausibility but never broke through to the other side, Disturbia sets plausibility aside altogether during the third act, when Caruso and his screenwriters take Kale down into a suburban house of horrors that’s as implausible (given the location and likelihood of discovery) as it is genuinely creepy (with as much implied violence as a PG-13 rating allows). As Disturbia moves toward the inevitable confrontation between Kale and Turner, the supporting characters shift in and out of jeopardy, disappearing when unneeded, but reappearing when needed to push the plot forward toward the all-too predictable denouement.

A teen thriller, though, is only as good, or to be more accurate, only as watchable, as its lead actors are. Luckily, Disturbia has a strong lead in Shia LaBeouf (the forthcoming Transformers, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Holes), and equally strong supporting turns from Roemer (shaky in one or two scenes, but credible nonetheless), Yoo (a bit overbroad, though), Moss (slipping comfortably into the suburban mother role), and Morse (a pro at “quietly menacing” characters). There’s only one Rear Window, and while Disturbia doesn’t even come a distant second, it still manages to be equal parts gripping, suspenseful, and entertaining (plausibility issue aside, of course) if only for its running time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars