by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Disturbia & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or most people, isolation is horribly frightening. Humans are herd animals. Look at how we conduct our wars, packed into opposing groups. Consider the way we live, instinctually clustered together. Isolation is more than loneliness -- it's the absence of civilization, the lack of interpersonal understanding. It suggests danger and despair. Nothing creates crazy like isolation. It's a tricky thing to impart artistically, though, especially if you're trying to couple isolation with suspicion and murder.
In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock hit on a tantalizing mix of the three in the form of the John Michael Hayes-penned Rear Window. The story is brilliant. Dude breaks leg, confining dude to his apartment. Dude gets bored. Dude gets binoculars. Dude starts snooping. Dude gets suspicious of everyone, suspects murder and sends ambulatory friends to investigate.
Disturbia tries to update that story for modern teens. This presents some problems. As I type this, I'm looking at a TV, a cable box, a cell phone, a gaming computer, a laptop with WiFi, my iPod and a half-dozen videogame consoles. I spend days on end voluntarily locked in small rooms -- physically alone, but, you know, connected. Isolation of the degree experienced by Hitchcock's character, Jefferies, is harder now. The filmmakers, then, had to get clever. They make the lead kid, Kale (Shia LaBeouf) a criminal, giving him house arrest. They have his mom take away his Xbox Live account and his iTunes account. They give him ADD and few outlets. Being a teenager, he's brimming with all kinds of sexual frustration, so they give him a hot new neighbor. The film's first half -- which recounts the arrest, the stripping of privileges, the boredom and the voyeurism -- is well-written, well-executed and entertaining, even for a viewer getting dangerously close to 27 years of age.
Setup over, though, and on to the film's slasher-aping second half. Kale thinks he sees some serious serial murdering going down in a neighbor's house, and he obsesses over it. That's when things go downhill. Disturbia has the claustrophobia, the panic and the scares that all thrillers do, but Hitchcock's unique tensions are missing. Being a slasher rather than a whodunit, there's never any real doubt about the guilt of the bachelor whom Kale suspects of foul play. He accuses the man, Mr. Turner, but the cops initially find nothing. Before the weight of false allegations can burden Kale, though, Turner tips his hand, obliterating any ethical tension or moral drama.
The doctrine of catharsis at work in most teen film requires that the kid be vindicated of the misjudgments of grownups. That's nothing new. Ballsier filmmakers would have toyed with this, putting Kale's cocksure pursuit in doubt, or even having it backfire completely. Barring that, all drama is due to personal danger. Director D.J. Caruso manages this with tight shots and lots of grainy webcam footage. He's confident but uninspired. Like the film itself, he ultimately has little to say.
Hitchcock once said, "In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings." If Caruso and team had made Thompson's villainy more ambiguous and made teen audiences sweat the correctness of Kale, Disturbia would have been far more satisfying. (Rated PG-13)