It is almost impossible in this day and age to hear someone discussing a solid thriller where they won’t say, in one way or another, that the movie is Hitchcockian. The power Alfred Hitchcock had over film, that his name is synonymous with a genre, is proof enough that the man was truly a master filmmaker.
Be it an homage or straight up remake, old Al’s fingerprints are on just about every thriller made in the last 40 years, as well as some comedies too. Of course, even in the remakes of Hitchcock’s work, none of them hold a candle to the work of the man himself. As much as I love Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT, and as Hitchcockian as it is, it is not Hitchcock. The thing that MATCH POINT is missing, that so many people miss when they pay respects to Hitchcock, is that the guy had a sense of humor.
And that, in essence, is why DISTURBIA is the best remake or homage to Hitchcock.
If you haven’t seen DISTURBIA, you really should. With a screenplay by Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth, director DJ Caruso and star Shia LaBeouf take a classic Hitchcock film, REAR WINDOW, and update it for a new audience using many of the same tricks Hitchcock loved to use, but never giving the feeling that they are just ripping the guy off.
The story of DISTURBIA follows teenaged Kale as he spends his summer under house arrest for punching his teacher. Kale is dealing with survivor’s guilt – he and his father were in a violent car accident that took the life of Kale’s pops – and like many with survivor’s guilt, Kale doesn’t know how to handle the emotions brewing inside him. Trapped indoors for the summer, with his Xbox Live account suspended by his mom, Kale is left with nothing to do but dwell on his father’s death and the role he played in it.
To distract himself, Kale begins watching the neighborhood from the multitude of windows in his home. He times out the daily schedule of his neighbors across the street, knowing exactly when the missus is going to head off to the club, and the mister is going to show up to schtup the maid. He becomes obsessed with the kids down the street who keep pranking him. He’s bored by his neighbor who mows his lawn twice a day. Most of all, Kale watches Ashley the recently moved in girl next door.
In true Hitchcock fashion, DISTURBIA mixes in voyeurism and sexuality to its comedy and terror. Kale’s sight is extended by a pair of rather impressive binoculars. At night, Kale uses a video camera equipped with night vision to spy on the block. He spends the days watching Ashley swim in a series of tiny bikinis, and the nights watching her through her bedroom window. Sure enough, Ashley figures out what Kale is up to, but instead of being angered by it, she joins in. Now with his main obsession taking part in Kale’s neighborhood peeping, he needs to find a new point of focus. This turns out to be Mr. Turner, the guy who mows his lawn twice a day and may just be a serial killer.
DISTURBIA plays well into the paranoia of the moment – Kale stuck inside fearing that his neighbor is a killer, but unable to gather evidence, sends Ashley and his friend Ronnie out to do it. When Mr. Turner shows up in Kale’s house with Kale’s mom, there is a definite sense of tension, but is it all in Kale’s mind, or is there more to Mr. Turner? If you haven’t seen it, I ain’t spoiling shit!
The real touch, though, the real thing that makes DISTURBIA a worthy homage to Hitchcock, is the way it handles characters. LaBeouf plays Kale as a jittery kid who wants to do anything but focus on his own feelings. He stammers and twitches not out of a lack of confidence but because of a high amount of anxiety – he speaks faster than his brain can keep up with and he is in constant need for his hands to be doing something, from holding an Xbox controller to building a tower of Twinkies, to randomly filming things around his house. Kale often gets lost in his own course of thought, missing how what he says doesn’t fully connect to what is happening.
Much of the character work comes out in the little moments, something else Hitchcock did perfectly, and Caruso pulls it off well here. When Ashley, Ronnie and Kale, for example, are debating if Mr. Turner is a serial killer, Ashley suggests that the guy just likes his privacy to which Kale responds “Why does he want his privacy? Because he’s hiding something!” while, yes, Mr. Turner is hiding something, so is Kale – his emotional situation. He places his feelings – dread, depression, anger – on those who are outside of his world, deflecting his own pain into their reality so that he doesn’t need to face it.
The quick quips, fast cracks and honest beats between the characters help keep you connected to the reality of the world. You understand Kale and Ronnie’s friendship and how it works. You know that as much as Kale gets off at peeping on Ashley, she gets off on knowing he is doing it – she goes as far as to throw a party just to make Kale jealous, playing up her flirting with another man when she knows Kale is watching from his bedroom window. The voyeurism excites them both in different ways.
The technology of the time plays deeply into DISTURBIA. Watching the film again for the first time in years, I couldn’t help but think about how the story, and the characters in it, use video cameras in such a nonchalant manner. If this movie were made today, it would most likely be found footage, and almost nothing would need to be changed. The idea that we rely so much on technology is played on throughout the movie as well – Kale references his iPod as having sixty gigs of his life on it. Ronnie wants to upload footage they have of Mr. Turner because he thinks it will be a huge hit on YouTube. Details of the victims of a serial killer are found online, and it has no effect on Ashley, who quickly follows up reading about one girl’s horrible death by asking “should we order a pizza?” The availability of this information, and the disconnected fashion that Ashley obtains it, separates her from the world where someone could die like that. Kale’s ankle bracelet is the biggest hurdle he needs to overcome on multiple occasions – technology is literally keeping him from interacting with the outside world.
Kale’s journey, much like Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff Jefferies in REAR WINDOW, is much more of an internal one than it is external. They both are working to forget the tragedy that happened to them, and the part they played in it. Both hide behind lenses so that the world will seem smaller, more manageable. They obsess over small details in order to keep from thinking about their own needs. In the end, both characters are able to find the release they so desperately need – the absolution of guilt via survival. DISTURBIA plays into Hitchcock’s greatest strengths – perversion, murder, fear, comedy, and guilt – and while it certainly never reaches the level of Hitchcock, it pulls it off better than most any other thriller out there.
*All Photos: DISTURBIA (2007) Dreamworks; Paramount Pictures