, 110 min, 2008
Director: Neil LaBute
Writers: David Loughery (screenplay) and Howard Korder (screenplay), David Loughery (story)
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington
Neil LaBute’s Lakeview Terrace, the provocateur’s latest attempt at ripping the lid off of moral hypocrisy in upper middle class America, exposing the rotten core just under the surface, is a treatise on modern race relations couched in the terms and style of a Hollywood thriller.
Samuel L. Jackson is Abel Turner, a veteran LAPD officer living on Lakeview Terrace, a nice suburban community in the hills above Los Angeles; a veiled reference is made to Rodney King, who was pulled over and famously abused by police in the area. Abel is a widower with serious doubt at the center of his being, a single father struggling to raise his young kids “properly,” and an authoritarian whether it be dealing with scum on the street in ways which could be seen as abusive, giving violently overpowering advice to young black men about how to be a “father,” or simply correcting his own teenage daughter’s grammar. Abel is a cop on the most corrupt police force in our nation’s history, and is thus forced to make assumptions every day about the people he comes into contact with.
Imagine his surprise then when he first sees his new neighbors: Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington); there is a nice moment when Abel (without words) can be seen to assume that Lisa has arrived with her older black husband, but it is in fact her rich father (Ron Glass). Chris and Lisa are a young, well-to-do interracial couple who move in next door to Abel, and immediately test his tolerance, his ability to adapt to modern sensibilities, and the very fabric of his morality. Chris is a well-meaning mid-level motivational speaker for Good, a supermarket chain, and his wife is a computer-based clothing designer who works from home. They are young, seemingly happy, having found their own slice of the American dream.
There is, however, tension right underneath their apparently happy surface: Chris smokes, keeping it from Lisa, and she wants not so subtly to start a family, which he is luke-warm about; “We agreed to wait” is his constant refrain. Their world is immediately tested by Abel, who before he says word one to Chris, puts a “friendly reminder” on his dashboard in the form of a parking ticket. Abel has security flood lights which show a paranoia and inconsideration that surely one would think his other neighbors might resent; nobody seems dumb enough to complain. The security lights are just the tip of the iceberg for Chris, however, who immediately is concerned and gradually grows frustrated and frightened by Abel’s increasingly bizarre and threatening behavior. When the film begins, Chris’s philosophy as a neighbor is “Can’t we all just get along?,” which Abel sees as yet another sign of racial difference, rather than a simple way of dealing with ones’ neighbors; what ever happened to “Good fences make…”?
Meanwhile, huge wild fires are approaching the neighborhood and might as well have a sign on them that says “metaphorical atmosphere approaching;” they aren’t that subtle, but they serve their purpose. As the plot wheels right along and the situation escalates toward a violent, if perhaps inevitable, showdown, Abel’s true motivation behind his odd behavior remains hidden behind the sociopathic hints of violent intent and almost-Machieavellian orchestrations designed to wear his opponents down and force them to abandon their dream and vacate his territory. By the time Abel manages to bear his soul to Chris at a bar, in a remarkable and brutally honest scene that is among the best such scenes LaBute has ever directed, it is “too little, too late;” the psychological wounds are too deep, and any scintilla of potential sympathy too scant for this to end well.
Neil LaBute is the playwright turned filmmaker who has written and directed some of the most morally-challenging, psychologically complex, viciously and acidically-humored portraits of upper middle class Americans ever made. He began with In the Company of Men (1997), a much-admired film about an office worker and his colleague (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) who play a cruel prank on a deaf woman just for sport. In Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), his greatest film to date, he portrayed six intelligent, well-spoken monsters in an unnamed city who cheat on and with each other in various combinations seemingly just for the fun of the deception. In The Shape of Things (2003), based on his play, a geeky art museum security guard (Paul Rudd) meets his match in a sexually adventurous, deceptive and yet brutally honest art student (Rachel Weisz) who gradually molds him into almost the perfect boyfriend. Although the war between the sexes is a common milieu for LaBute, he has also ranged from the darkly comedic (Nurse Betty) to the passionate and literary (Possession with Gwyneth Paltrow) to the campy and would-be horrific (The Wicker Man – a 2006 remake).
With this film, LaBute may be shifting the nature of the battle along with the venue, but the style and stakes are the same. Working from a screenplay long in development by David Loughery and Howard Korder (LaBute did some uncredited rewrites as well), LaBute has made a thriller that is uncommonly intelligent, thought-provoking, sincere and deeper than it first appears; indeed, I was scarcely the only one not left laughing at the horrendous-looking trailers. The film has been advertised as a somewhat over-the-top thriller, and so it is, yet what a wonderful surprise to discover how understated, complex and involving it is as well.
Jackson manages to create a character that is believable (for the most part) yet utterly menacing and disturbing, though he’s not simply a “villain.” By the film’s end, you understand what he does and why he does it, even if you think it’s a bit of an overreaction; it’s no accident he is an LAPD officer, with all that that entails and implies. As the young couple who are thrust head-first into this nightmare and completely caught off-guard, Wilson and Washington make a nice and believable couple, young and still learning the pitfalls of interracial marriage, with all the baggage that comes attached. They are well-meaning and yet have secrets of their own, from each other, and how Jackson manages to expose and exploit their weaknesses, thus emotionally eviscerating them, is a real treat to watch.
If by the end you feel like you’re watching a suburban Western, well, that is sort of what LaBute intended. The fact that you are left thinking about the issues and questions raised via the plot, and that you care so much for the characters is a testament to LaBute, his writers and his actors.