After witnessing his father's death, Kale (Shia LeBeouf) is left a wounded soul. Having clocked his Spanish teacher in a split-second moment of disrespect, Kale is convicted of assault and placed under house arrest. Over the course of the summer, Kale builds his own world up in his room, observing the neighbors engaging in their daily activities, including new addition Ashley (a lifeless Sarah Roemer). Together the two spy the behavior of Turner (David Morse), a sketchy fellow who Kale believes might be responsible for a series of unsolved murders.
"Disturbia," for all its pulse-quickening intentions, is really more of a comedy than a thriller. Director D.J. Caruso ("Two for the Money," "Taking Lives," "The Salton Sea") is searching for a mixture of wacky teen skepticism and taught suspense machinations. It's a risky brew, and I was never convinced that the filmmaker held a firm grasp on the picture's tone. The first two acts are devoted almost entirely to Kale's puttering around and restricted voyeurism, with little effort made to thread in the required haunting overtones.
The picture just spins its wheels while it waits for Kale's charms and comical neighborhood watch to sink in with the audience. This would be much more easily accomplished if writers Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth (who wrote the invigorating "Red Eye," making this miss a huge question mark) invested more into ratcheting up Kale's frustrations and stagnancy. Instead, the writers water down the material to best match their intended teen audience (at one point, a flaming bag of dog feces works its way into the script), and pencil in a romance between Kale and Ashley that would hold more authenticity as Penthouse Letter.
During this time, Caruso leaves it up to LeBeouf to do whatever he wants with the character, and I use that term loosely. While I've been impressed with LeBeouf in the past, "Disturbia" comes the closest to revealing the young actor as a one-trick-pony, regurgitating his Vegas routine of snarky attitude and line-stepping improvisation to a point of exhaustion. LeBeouf doesn't attempt to find Kale a personality worthy of a lead performance; he essentially plays himself.
What makes Kale tick is never explained by the production. One minute, the kid is a bleary-eyed Xbox addict building Twinkie castles and the next he's an electronic MacGyver designing complex camera equipment for his constipated reconnaissance missions. I suppose in the larger scheme of things, questions of character depth and logic are best left for a more intelligent picture.
If LeBeouf doesn't amp disinterest in "Disturbia's" shenanigans, the critical casting mistake of David Morse might prompt even more violent eye-rolling. The hulking character actor portrays the mystery of the moment in the film; a man the script insists on suggesting holds an ambiguity that isn't supposed to payoff until the final moment. Putting Morse in this position is the worst casting decision the film makes (I write that knowing full well that Sarah Roemer is in the movie as well). Was Freddy Krueger on vacation? Michael Myers not taking calls? Part of the supposed "fun" of "Disturbia" is guessing if Turner is a menace or just misunderstood. With Morse in the role, the work has already been done for the viewer.
When the time comes for the film to go haywire, there's such a threadbare amount of interest left that Caruso has no alternative but to amp the violence and grisly details in a way that hints perhaps the PG-13 rating branded onto "Disturbia" was bought instead of awarded. The climax gets lurid to cheaply hold attention, pushing suspense buttons left and right. Not everything in the film's closer is worthy of dismissal – Caruso does pull off some nicely executed shots – but the panic comes too late, and without a decent set-up to work the audience into a lather, kicking the door down on any type of darkness comes off as pathetic, not entertaining.