Lakeview Terrace (United States, 2008)
Robert Frost famously wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors," and that's one of the first phrases that comes to mind while watching Lakeview Terrace, the latest thriller from Neil LaBute. LaBute began his filmmaking career with the scathing In the Company of Men, but his previous effort was the deservedly reviled remake of The Wicker Man. While Lakeview Terrace isn't as horrendous as The Wicker Man, it's nowhere close to the level LaBute attained with his debut. The first two-thirds of Lakeview Terrace offer a little more subtlety and complexity than the seemingly straightforward premise would afford, but the climax is loud, dumb, generic, and over-the-top. Those hoping for something more interesting will be disappointed by the level to which the filmmaker stoops to get an unearned visceral rush. In pandering to Hollywood standards about how stories like this should unfold, LaBute has lost his edge.
Lakeview Terrace is a small, ethnically diverse Southern California community where Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) have chosen to purchase their first home. It's a nice property with a small yard and a pool in the back. Their next door neighbor is Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a single father cop whose two children would describe him as "strict" and whose personality is intimidating. Abel takes an almost instant dislike to Chris and Lisa. To begin with, they're an interracial couple - something he doesn't agree with. His disenchantment with them grows when he and his kids spy them frolicking naked in their pool. From that moment, he decides they're not right for Lakeview Terrace and begins a covert campaign of psychological warfare to encourage them to move. For Chris and Lisa, calling the cops is out of the question, since Abel is a 28-year veteran of the LAPD.
The cat and mouse game between Abel and the Mattsons is the area in which Lakeview Terrace can most accurately be described as compelling. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but LaBute handles it effectively. We also see facets of the characters that might not be revealed in a more straightforward handling of a similar story. Attempts are made to flesh out Abel as more than just a wacko cop with a chip on his shoulder. We see that he's trying to be a good father and we learn a little about the circumstances of his wife's death. The movie also illustrates some of the difficulties inherent in an interracial marriage, especially when family members and neighbors are not enamored with the situation. Abel is not the only one in Lakeview Terrace to dislike the union of a black woman and a white man.
For a while, it looks like Samuel L. Jackson will be playing a toned-down version of his usual self. When we're introduced to Abel, he comes across as a God-fearing, buttoned-down man who avoids profanity and the appearance of impropriety. Over the course of the film, however, Abel becomes a more typical Jackson personality, descending to the point where he's snarling, sneering, and virtually foaming at the mouth. The film's last fifteen minutes are so over-the-top that they're almost impossible to take seriously and Abel's motivation during a critical sequence near the conclusion is difficult to fathom. It's the kind of thing that results from a screenwriter not knowing how to end a movie. Considering that the screenwriter in question is David Loughery, the man who was in part responsible for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, perhaps this shouldn't be surprising. Meanwhile, Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are okay as the couple in the crossfire but, in comparison to Jackson, they're boring. That's the problem with sharing the screen with a man who's a force of nature.
The film includes a subplot about the California wildfires that serves little purpose beyond adding a little smoke to the inter-character fires that explode in the final act. The film's creation of these fires, which begin in the distance then gradually come closer as the picture moves along, are representative of pretty good special effects, but it's hard to understand what their purpose is if not to distract viewers from the growing ridiculousness of the neighborhood conflict as it escalates beyond the bounds of credulity. After all, if the neighborhood is going to be reduced to a pile of ashes, who cares whether the people living there get along with each other?
There are times when Lakeview Terrace seems to be striving for something more interesting than the basic "cop from hell" movie, but any pretensions it may have of escaping this orbit come crashing down as the script veers more and more into generic territory. Going in, you might think you know how it's going to end, and you'd probably be right. If LaBute sews some doubts along the way, it's a testament to the way the first half of the film is constructed. It's too bad the movie's moderately intriguing qualities are buried under the final half-hour's avalanche of predictability.
Lakeview Terrace (United States, 2008)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington
Screenplay: David Loughery and Howard Korder
Cinematography: Rogier Stoffers
Music: Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems