Recent thrillers have been so jangled and torn apart with premonitions, mementos, and hiccups in the space-time whatever that when a movie with the spooky-vague title Disturbia opened with a freakish highway car crash, I was startled to realize it wasn’t a supernatural event. One year after the accident, Kale (Shia LaBeouf), a high school junior, is still reeling from the death of his father; when he lashes out at one of his teachers by popping him in the jaw, he is sentenced to three months of house arrest. It’s far from an entirely unpleasant arrangement. The electronic ankle bracelet Kale is forced to wear is a bit itchy, and if he strays past the front lawn, the device will flash and bring the cops over in seconds, but this leaves him with nothing much to do except sit around playing Xbox, watching trash TV, and scarfing ice cream. It’s every teen’s indolent dream. Even after his scolding mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) clamps down on those pleasures, he can stare out the window through binoculars at his neighbors, like Ashley (Sarah Roemer), the hottie with the oversize grin and ’70s hair who has just moved in next door (she’s like a baby Marilyn Chambers), or Mr. Turner (David Morse), the smooth creep who may be up to very bad things.
If it’s possible to be a rip-off with wit, Disturbia qualifies. Trapped in his comfortable yet boring suburban home, with all his teenage hormones firing, Kale recalls Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and the comparison is sealed by LaBeouf’s new-brand teen-star aura — his videogame addict’s darting delivery and slightly withdrawn cool. Ever since Holes, I’ve enjoyed LaBeouf as a slightly gawky kid, but I confess that I never expected him to grow up into such a confident, darkly good-looking actor — a heartthrob. More reminiscent, really, of the young John Cusack than Cruise, LaBeouf, with his pensive eyebrows and slightly combative poker face, puts Kale’s anxieties right out there, especially when he’s spying on Ashley and then ducking under the window in case she spots him. LaBeouf gets the audience to identify with his inner worrywart, and also to see his two-handed control over it.
Before long, Disturbia — hey, it’s a catchier title than House Arrest — moves toward riskier business, turning into a youth gloss on Rear Window, with Kale, in his Peeping Tom chair, piecing together the clues to murder. He doesn’t have to do much piecing: Early on, there’s a news report about a serial killer with a dented blue Mustang, and the moment that a car with that description pops up, it’s clear that Disturbia, briskly paced and crisply shot though it is, lacks cleverness. The director, D.J. Caruso, has a bit of fun with cell-phone cameras employed as improvised teen surveillance devices, and David Morse, as the bad-apple neighbor, once again plays the audience with his hulking, softly dimpled sleaze, his suggestion of dominating intelligence as a mask for violence. But Disturbia, unlike Hitchcock’s masterpiece of urban-courtyard fishbowl voyeurism, is a Rear Window that never bothers to peer into more than one window.