Dir: Neil LaBute. US. 2008. 110 mins.
Neil LaBute takes his best commercial swing yet with Lakeview Terrace, a solidly-constructed drama of suburban friction and unrest that only fully yields to genre convention in its final, wild, ten minutes. While not enough of a straightforward thriller to attract widescale younger audiences, the film is still a very effective showcase for the cool menace that star Samuel L. Jackson can project, and will connect largely on the basis of that.
For the majority of its running time, Lakeview Terrace is more of a character study than a tale of neighbours-gone-wild such as Pacific Heights or Unlawful Entry. Generally-positive word-of-mouth should help the film score adult audiences looking for substantial mainstream drama; respectable mid-eight-figure grosses seem within reach. International returns, on the other hand, may reflect the fact that the film feels like such an acutely American commentary on race relations.
Chris and Lisa Mattson (Wilson and Washington, respectively) buy their first home in an upper-middle-class southern California suburb, and immediately clash with their new neighbour Abel Turner (Jackson), a stern single father of two who disapproves of their interracial relationship. Abel is also a veteran police officer, which complicates matters when acts that could be misconstrued (a mock parking ticket on the couple's first day in town, security lights on Abel's house shining directly into the couple's bedroom) give way to various acts of vandalism.
For a while Chris and Lisa try to make nice, even offering Abel's teen daughter the use of their swimming pool - a welcome oasis in the sweltering heat, which is partially responsible for nearby raging wildfires. When Abel's campaign of harassment persists, however, Chris and Lisa succumb to answering back. Things come to a boil just as a fire descends from the hill that abuts their land.
More or less a critical darling since his incendiary 1997 debut, In the Company of Men, LaBute has never scored with domestic audiences to the tune of more than $25 million. Lakeview Terrace, however, represents the slickest packaging yet of the themes that have most often defined his work - the tensions inherent in all our relationships, and how differences (in race, gender and religion) often radically divide us.
The screenplay handles this fairly seriously, taking care to nicely shade and fill in Abel's back story, but also spotlight his manipulativeness. The first hour of the film is very effective in building tension.
Apart from an implausible conversation between Chris and Abel after a stakes-raising incident, the only real narrative stumbles are the over-the-top ending and the inclusion of bickering discord between Chris and Lisa about when to start a family. The latter plot strand slightly factors into proceedings, but comes across chiefly as just a way to stall action with regards to the main story. The film's aggressive finale, meanwhile, feels like a concession to commercial pressure, and out of step with the nuance and care with which the rest of the story is told.
Washington delivers a solid performance, encapsulating in just a few lines a young woman forever caught between two poles -- her husband, whom she loves very much, and the African-African community, with all the implied solidarity that confers. Jackson, meanwhile, is like a coiled cobra, and his threatening smiles give the movie much of its nervous, jangly energy.
Production values and technical credits are solid all around, with Rogier Stoffers' crisp cinematography abetting a spare production design scheme that keeps one's focus firmly on the characters and their conflict.
David Loughery and Howard Korder, based on a story by David Loughery
Samuel L. Jackson