Lakeview Terrace is one of the most subversive films I've seen in ages. On the surface, it looks like a routine thriller, not too far removed from pictures like Unlawful Entry, Single White Female, or any of the dozens of other "______ from Hell" movies we've been handed over the years. Read between the lines, though, and you will find a devastating story about racial intimidation - one that is sometimes intentionally squirm-inducing. The director is Neil LaBute, who specializes in telling stories that polarize an audience and provoke strong pro/con reactions. (Think In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things.) Within the confines of this nifty little thriller, he and screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder insert some thematic material that elevates the project into something truly special.
Except for the ending. We'll get to that in a moment.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Abel Turner, a widowed LAPD cop. In a nicely done opening scene, we learn that he's driven by a strong moral purpose; he refuses to let his son wear a Kobe Bryant jersey because he disapproves of the baller's reputation, and he repeatedly corrects his teenage daughters hip-hop grammar. On the job, we can tell that he takes no guff from criminals, but rather delights in teaching them a lesson, even if that means crossing the occasional boundary.
Abel does not like it one bit when new neighbors move in next door. They are Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington). Chris is white, Lisa is black. Abel is not okay with this. Nor is he okay with them having sex in their swimming pool, in full view of his children. Abel begins passive-aggressively annoying the couple. He shines his security lights into their bedroom at night. He peers through their windows, When branches from their trees hang over into his yard, he chops them off. In short, he wants to force them to move. When Chris and Lisa try to stand up for themselves, Abel only escalates his behavior, being careful to remind them that there's no point calling the police because he is the police. Eventually, the situation becomes so tense that it boils over, with both sides directing their hostility directly at one another.
There is a fascinating undertone to Lakeview Terrace, and that is that Chris feels emasculated around black men. He can't find the gumption to stand up to his father-in-law (Ron Glass), who he knows harbors feelings of disappointment that his daughter married a white guy. Chris also has trouble standing up to Abel, often choosing to back down or let go of things that are genuinely bothering him as soon as the neighbor grows even the tiniest bit belligerent. These feelings of emasculation come to a head in the early hours one morning, when Chris goes next door to request that Abel turn his music down, only to be literally forced into a position of physical and emotional vulnerability.
The strength of the movie in dealing with racial issues comes from having the cop be black. In a lot of movies, it would be a white guy upset that his neighbor was involved in an inter-racial relationship. And that would have felt like a generic knee-jerk message-movie setup. By making Able black, the movie can explore its racial issues on more than a surface level. We know why a white man might object to an interracial marriage; centuries of racism have taught us that some people are ignorantly biased about skin color. However, the reasons why Abel might object are less obvious, which draws us increasingly into the story as we watch every move he makes looking for clues.
If Abel's prejudices are out in the open, Chris's are more subtle and are tied directly to his feelings of emasculation. He has two modes when it comes to dealing with an African-American: demurral (when challenged) and defiant (when he feels there's no other option). We sense through his interactions with his father-in-law and with Abel that Chris doesn't necessarily think black men can be reasoned with. He has an unspoken fear that challenging a black man will result in him getting a beat-down, so he simply gives in at the drop of a hat. It is a quality that Abel preys on. Or, when his back is against the wall, Chris reacts with outright hostility, which ends up provoking a response that reinforces the stereotype in his mind. It's interesting that throughout Lakeview Terrace, you get the impression that these two men could solve everything easily if Abel would just calm down and Chris would just be a tiny bit more assertive. Neither one does, and both pay the price.
This is the best role Samuel L. Jackson has had in years. What I love is that, for the most part, he doesn't play Abel like a psycho. Even when the cop is tormenting the couple next door, we see the humanity beneath his actions. Abel is raw and wounded, with only his insistence on morality propping him up. Ironically, it's this morality that leads him to do immoral things. Jackson manages to be convincingly menacing while still having us empathize with his character. Abel is not a bad guy; he's just provoked in the wrong way by the wrong things, and his dark side comes out. Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington also do first-rate work.
All of this brings us to the final act of Lakeview Terrace which is, to put it kindly, a letdown. I was reminded of Fatal Atttaction. Both movies deal with hot-button issues in a manner that is provocative and unnerving. And rather than following the themes to their natural (and uncomfortable) conclusions, both go for an easy out, giving us lame, action-heavy endings that seem to go directly against everything we've just seen. When the Lakeview Terrace was over, I came up with two different endings that would have been far more honest and daring than what we actually get. It's really a shame because, with a more truthful finale, this would have been one of the better films of the year. It amazes me that LaBute, who seems to take such delight in challenging his viewers, would settle for something that is such a cop-out when he could have blown the roof off every theater showing his film.
Disappointing though the ending may be, Lakeview Terrace is still smart, scary, and emotionally stimulating enough to be well worth seeing. Aside from the weak final act, this is a movie about black and white that refreshingly focuses on the gray.
( out of four)
Lakeview Terrace is rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, violence, sexuality, language and some drug reference. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat