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Dustin Putman

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Lakeview Terrace  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Neil LaBute.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher, Ron Glass, Justin Chambers, Jay Hernandez, Robert Pine, Keith Loneker, Caleeb Pinkett, Robert Dahey, Ho-Jung, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Michael Landes.
2008 – 110 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, language, sexuality and some drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 17, 2008.
A neighbor from hell wreaks havoc on the lives of a new married couple on the block in "Lakeview Terrace," a thriller that has more on its mind than it may at first seem—until, that is, it gives up and aims for the lowest-common-denominator. The film is directed by Neil LaBute (2006's "The Wicker Man"), a trailblazing indie filmmaker with 1997's "In the Company of Men," 1998's "Your Friends & Neighbors" and 2003's "The Shape of Things" who has lost nearly all of his edge since switching over to mainstream fare. These studio-funded projects might be making him substantially more money, but at what cost? LaBute, working from a screenplay by David Loughery and Howard Korder, tries for a long while to mix things up, treating the characters and plot developments with more savvy than expected. What he can't do is quite lift it outside of the conventions and clichés of its subgenre. The ending is a particular letdown.

When young married couple Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) move into their first official home together—a lovely piece of real estate located in a suburban California cul de sac—they eagerly anticipate it to be the start of a happy future together. Their decidedly idyllic lives are thrown for a tailspin in the form of neighbor Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a widowed father and proud police officer who doesn't take kindly to the interracial relationship happening next door to him. Passive-aggressive in the worst way, Abel intentionally shines his outside house lights at all hours of the night into Chris' and Lisa's upstairs bedroom, and more or less tells Chris outright that they're not wanted. For as long as they can stand it, Chris and Lisa attempt to make nice, but as Abel's threats become more serious—i.e. they experience a break-in; their air conditioning is tampered with; Chris is accosted at a cop-filled bachelor party Abel is hosting—and then potentially deadly, they are left with few options and fewer people to turn to. When Chris threatens to call the police at one point, Abel smarmily responds, "I am the law!"

"Lakeview Terrace" wants to be a crowd-pleasing suspenser and a thought-provoking study of modern-day racism and bigotry. It alternately succeeds as both, but rarely simultaneously. Information is revealed from Abel's past that helps to inform his point-of-view, but it doesn't really make him any less hateful and unpleasant. Stereotypes are thankfully kept to a minimum—Abel's teenage daughter Celia (Regine Nehy), for example, does not share her father's beliefs, and the details of Chris' and Lisa's personalities go against what one might be conditioned to anticipate from an interracial couple. Scenes that attempt to portray the differing adversity they must face by choosing to be with each other despite not sharing the same skin color is a subject hardly ever covered in cinema, and it is treated with at least a modicum of intelligence here.

First and foremost, though, the film is a pretty commonplace thriller in which a fill-in-the-blank villain terrorizes the protagonists through increasingly criminal behavior. There is cheap entertainment to be had from this, and credit goes to director Neil LaBute in the way that he doesn't always go down the road that a lesser movie might. When Abel secretly films Chris at the bachelor party getting a dance from a stripper and sends the edited version to Lisa in the mail, conveniently cutting out Chris' pleas to stop as the other guys forcefully hold him down, Lisa refreshingly sees right through Abel's game and never questions or gets upset with Chris about it. What is never satisfactorily explained is why this put-upon couple do not go to the police. Sure, Abel is on the force, but there are plenty of cops and officials in the L.A. area who likely do not even know who he is. Just because Abel is a member of the LAPD does not automatically make him exempt from the harrassment he inflicts upon his neighbors, but LaBute does not even broach this obvious plot hole.

Samuel L. Jackson (2008's "Jumper"), who in recent years has coasted by on his laid-back, charismatic persona, receives a meatier part than usual as Abel Turner. It is a fairly stock antagonistic role, but one that allows him to explore a darker, more threatening side. As Chris and Lisa, whose disagreements over when to have a baby further adds to the stress Abel is creating for them, Patrick Wilson (2007's "Evening") and Kerry Washington (2004's "Ray") are easy to like and get behind as everything around them crumbles. They also share enough of a spark to make their relationship believable and worth caring about. Supporting cast members are perfunctory, though Regine Nehy (2007's "Pride") has some strong moments as Abel's daughter Celia, who finally gains the courage to stand up to her father's iron fist.

As raging wildfires in the area edge closer to their community, a more imminent danger rises upon Chris' and Lisa's fragile domesticity. Like a switch that suddenly turns, the climax of "Lakeview Terrace" feels separate from what has come before. Violent, silly, and just plain dumb, the film culminates in a series of events that cheapen the material and carelessly push two innocent bystanders—Celia and younger brother Marcus (Jaishon Fisher)—to the wayside without a moment's consideration about them. Hence, what begins as a button-pushing think piece concludes by pushing all the wrong buttons and losing sight of the bigger picture. "Lakeview Terrace" may have begun with loftier ambitions, but it ends up as just another disposably predictable thriller.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman