Even with years of consideration and compromise, race remains a far too risky hot button topic. No matter how you present it - comically, dramatically, satirically, metaphorically - the corrupt cloud of prejudice tends to trump most artistic aspirations. There’s just too much baggage with bigotry, decades of discrimination and social acquiescence to same that it appears impossible to overcome…at least initially. And no, changing the ‘color’ of intolerance doesn’t redefine or reconfigure the argument. That’s the problem facing Neil LaBute and his latest effort, the slow burn thriller Lakeview Terrace. While it looks like dozens of films that have come before, the independent icon - responsible for In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty - tries to instill some novelty via a unique approach and a controversial villain. For the most part, he stumbles as often as he succeeds.
When interracial couple Chris and Lisa Mattson move into a new LA subdivision, they soon learn they are living next to a real piece of work. Abel Turner has been a policeman for 28 years, and though his record with Internal Affairs is spotty at best, he receives nothing but respect and loyalty from his fellow officers. A strict single father with an unflappable moral code, Abel takes an instant dislike to Chris and Lisa - and it’s not because they represent liberal leaning politics. No, it’s because he is a white man married to a black woman, and thanks to recent events in Turner’s life (and the psychological scars they’ve left), he cannot forgive such a setup. So he starts to sabotage the duo, keeping his overly bright security lights on all night, dismantling their air conditioner and landscaping when the mood hits him. At first, the pair suspects nothing. But as Turner turns more violent, Chris and Lisa realize they have to protect themselves - or pay the price for not doing so.
Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson, Ron Glass
(Screen Gems; US theatrical: 19 Sep 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (General release); 2008)
In some ways, it’s impossible to boil Lakeview Terrace down to a single salable element. This is the kind of movie where every bad guy has his decent side, every hero is merely half-hearted, and the genre beats we except from the story come buried in sidebars of dense characterization and unnecessary sideways subplotting. At almost two hours, it’s 20 minutes too long. And for something that’s supposed to inspire an edge of your seat reaction, we spend way too much time sitting back with lots of inferred individual conflict. All three main actors are excellent in their roles, with Patrick Wilson standing shoulder to shoulder with Samuel L. Jackson. Indeed, the Pulp Fiction prophet is so good here that you often forget he’s supposed to be playing the villain. Instead, Abel Turner is more like a determined devil, unable to show his true wickedness until its far too late for the film or its audience.
Of course, it’s all LaBute’s fault. The playwright turned filmmaker is not necessarily out to deliver the stereotypical shivers. Instead, he wants to explore motive and meaning, to look beyond the aspects of race to focus on more universal themes like family, duty, law, and order. Turner is not really the neighbor from Hell. Instead, he’s more a partner in purgatory, wildfires raging just behind his fancy property lines. We are supposed to see that a similar blaze is rampant within his character, and a revelatory bar scene suggests a more than capable rationale. But in the end, when our baddie actually threatens life (he calls on a local hood to do his disgusting, deadly dirty work) Jackson can’t save Turner. And then he turns into a baldheaded Jason with a badge. It’s as if LaBute drops all the pretense of the previous 105 minutes and simply let’s the narrative devolve into pedestrian payback mode.
Another issue here is the script. Instead of exploring the many conflicts that constantly rise up out of the dialogue, the film simply skirts the problems and moves on. Turner is seen harassing locals for his own unscrupulous means. It goes nowhere. Lisa’s snooty father (a welcome return for Barney Miller‘s Ron Glass) constantly demeans her white husband, and yet we never get to the crux of why. Even our supposedly happily marrieds find themselves struggling for a connection when an unplanned pregnancy comes along. Chris’s objections and his spouse’s equally sour response seem like moments from another movie. Indeed, with Wilson in the lead, Lakeview Terrace sometimes plays like Todd Field’s Halloween revamp of Little Children, without the former’s superior sense of subject and storytelling.
This is the kind of film destined to disappoint all who come to see it. Anyone wanting Jackson in full bore bad ass mofo mode will, instead, get a troubled man who uses his street smart lawbreaking ability to torment a couple of crass, somewhat deserving yuppies. While there is some dimension to the character, anyone hoping for a more serious dissection of discrimination also needs to look elsewhere. LaBute and company seem too afraid to scream narrow-mindedness. Instead, they allow conversations to beat around the bush, even dropping the N-word now and again as a show of subject matter solidarity. Granted, watching Sam the Man chew his lines with manic glee is a joy to behold. But outside the nervous laughter, Lakeview Terrace doesn’t offer up much suspense.
Indeed, the lack of dread and accompanying release will be the biggest sticking points for what is an otherwise halfway decent drama. LaBute is so comfortable handling the confrontations and awkward silences that we really wish the whole rogue cop conceit had been tossed aside for more personal byplay. Jackson and Wilson have some wonderful moments together, and while she holds her own admirably, Terry Washington’s presence seems linked to her ability to look sexy and confused at the same time. With the unwelcome inferno billowing in the background, the weird one-upmanship that seems stolen out of a lesser film (say Unlawful Entry), and the entire concept of interracial romance relegated to the very rear of the back burners, Lakeview Terrace becomes an incomplete experience. It should be better than it eventually is. But considering how cheesy and unchallenging it could have been, we should probably embrace its deficiencies.