Lakeview Terrace

Lakeview Terrace, now out on DVD, was advertised as a domestic menace thriller a la Unlawful Entry or Single White Female, and vilified by many critics as more failed provocation from director Neil LaBute. It’s both, of course: a provocative failed thriller with the LaBute touch.

LaBute directed the film but doesn’t receive credit on the screenplay, which has Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington) moving into a tony cul-de-sac, next door to LAPD officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Turner presides over his home and his neighborhood with what he pitches as no-nonsense, common-sense authority, and takes an immediate, quiet but perceptible dislike to Chris and Lisa — an interracial couple.

Tensions escalate; those two words could describe just about every scene in the movie, which makes some valiant attempts at exploring racism in a “post-racial” world. For a while, that tension has human faces thanks to Wilson, Washington and, especially, Jackson, whose performance goes further than the eye-bulging stares or hollering asked of him in so many of his roles. Those familiar mannerisms are used as uneasy accents on a man trying to hang on to his power under threats real or imagined.

But the movie doesn’t stay fixed on its well-drawn sociological cul-de-sac; the score becomes ominous, Abel’s actions become scarier, retaliations are considered, and the movie ratchets up the wrong kind of tension. Eventually it comes to an ambiguous conclusion, not in the sense that it’s challenging or thought-provoking, but in its muddled frenzied, it’s difficult to discern what, exactly, the filmmakers are getting at.

The deleted scenes follow in kind. Most are short bits with more character-building and backstory for Chris and Lisa, rightfully cut from the intriguing first chunk of the film. The longest one, though, is a strange, tense scene between Lisa and Abel in which she may be flirting with him for manipulation or revenge, or possibly as a prelude to murdering him; it’s unclear. Here you can feel the movie fumbling around for someplace to go; there’s even a second, faster version of the scene with different aims but no more success. LaBute was right to cut it, but it’s only somewhat less grounded than some of what he left in.

On the DVD commentary, LaBute and Washington have an earnest discussion about the making of the film. Through their relentless positivity, they hit upon and further explain some of the movie’s strongest points, as when they point out little moments Jackson added to the Abel Turner character to keep him from a purely villainous role.

The film’s failure to follow through on Jackson’s good work isn’t really addressed, as the director and actress both sound surprisingly satisfied with the film as a whole. In the final ten minutes or so, LaBute addresses the film’s critical reception, implying that a lot of people didn’t understand its intentions when he defensively offers that Lakeview Terrace was “always meant to be a thriller.”

I believe him; one of the screenwriters has another upcoming domestic menace thriller to his name (Obsessed, which looks from the trailer like a racially loaded Fatal Attraction to this movie’s racially loaded Unlawful Entry). But regardless of intent, LaBute’s movie isn’t particularly suspenseful; he’s far better at handling social unease than physical confrontations, despite Washington’s overenthusiastic characterization of a climactic window exchange as “very Hitchcock”.

He goes on to note that earlier drafts of the screenplay were far heavier on third-act spectacle; the California fires that loom so obviously over the film apparently played a bigger role. Essentially, by acknowledging criticisms without engaging them more specifically, his argument turns into claiming his movie works because it could’ve been much worse.

RATING 4 / 10
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