Race in America is such an inherently combustible subject that Hollywood rarely goes anywhere near it without using comedy as a skittish safety net. Which is pretty dumb, really, since we’re obviously hungry for movies that dare to acknowledge and explore the many fissures still compromising the country’s melting pot. How else could a film as blatantly awful as Crash gross $55 million and win the Oscar for Best Picture? No less incendiary, but far more incisive and controlled, Lakeview Terrace, the latest effort from noted provocateur Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), speaks so frankly and provocatively to and about Obama Nation that it’s like a dash of cold water thrown in your face, repeatedly. Because the film ultimately takes a disastrous nosedive into standard-issue stupid-thriller nonsense, it’s likely to take a beating from critics and garner poor word-of-mouth. Don’t be dissuaded. There are certainly better movies out there right now, but good luck finding one half as trenchant.
Sporting his angriest glare but speaking in a maddeningly imperturbable tone, Samuel L. Jackson plays Abel Turner, a self-righteous LA cop who is none too happy to see interracial couple Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door. “Welcome to the neighborhood; observe all parking regulations,” reads the fake ticket Abel places on the windshield of their moving van, sticking out a few feet beyond the driveway—just the first sally in a campaign of intimidation that will gradually escalate from veiled threats to vandalism and beyond. All the while, a symbolic wildfire moves closer and closer to the hill abutting this affluent cul-de-sac—a bit heavy-handed, to be sure, but not significantly more so than, say, Spike Lee setting Do the Right Thing on the hottest day of the year.
[Something]-from-hell thrillers were commonplace in the early ’90s, and Jackson’s role here is functionally equivalent to Robert De Niro’s in Cape Fear or Michael Keaton’s in Pacific Heights ... except that Lakeview Terrace stubbornly refuses to treat Abel like a generic bogeyman. Indeed, the movie opens not as you’d expect, with sympathetic Chris and Lisa packing their belongings or arriving at their new starter home, but with a portrait of widower Abel as martinet dad. We first see the new couple on the block through his suspicious eyes, which means (by the dictates of film grammar) that they’re implicitly coded as intruders. Wilson, perhaps the WASPiest actor in Hollywood, is practically the only Caucasian in sight; the movie subtly but audaciously unfolds as if white people were the minority, complicating our responses at every turn. Abel even has legitimate reasons to dislike Chris and Lisa, who on their first night proceed to have noisy sex in the pool, witnessed by Abel’s kids.
As a writer, LaBute tends to be brutal to the point of absurdity, but here he sticks closely to the sharp screenplay, written by David Loughery and Howard Korder. Every time Lakeview Terrace heads into conventional-thriller territory, it quickly retreats to plausibility and behavioral nuance; even late in the film, a scene of Abel attacking Chris through the fence with a chain saw (not as Leatherface as it sounds) is followed by a scene in which Abel buys Chris a drink at the local bar and sincerely tries to make amends. Chris and Lisa’s relationship, too, feels thoroughly lived-in, skirting melodrama at every turn—when Chris complains that being married to a black woman makes him feel like he’s “always on the front line,” Lisa’s gently incredulous reaction shows up Crash as the hyperbolic piffle it is. Which is why it’s such a letdown when Lakeview Terrace finally succumbs to genre dictates, transforming its well-wrought characters into clockwork morons for the sake of a rousing slam-bang finale. Difficult questions become fatuous answers. It’s a real shame.