Review: “Lakeview Terrace”

Mixing that healthy suspicion we all share about our neighbors being the next Jeffrey Dahmer with some not so subversive racial tension and power plays, ‘Lakeview’ drums up the odd moment of effective mild suspense before succumbing to standard genre shenanigans.

The unpredictable and often fiery performance of Samuel L. Jackson serves as both help and hindrance to this latest work of Neil LaBute which, in its final act, becomes harder to take any more seriously than his now legendary misogynistic self-parody of a remake of “The Wicker Man” in 2006. From the blunt metaphor of an encroaching wildfire to the sheer unbelievable behavior of Jackson’s Abel Turner – moments of what should be simmering tension ultimately become awkward and uncomfortable comedy.

Many non-sexual thrillers of the 90’s such as “Unlawful Entry,” “Pacific Heights” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” have milked this formula before of some crazed psycho neighbor/tenant upsetting a young and happy couple and no-one believes them. LaBute adds a role-reversal situation – much like Michael Crichton’s “Disclosure” explored workplace sexual harassment with a male lead, this portrays the corrupt, bigoted and unstable middle-class villain of the piece as an African-American cop rather than your garden variety white religious nut.

It’s an approach that oddly enough works at first. The script doesn’t judge or force conclusions about characters early on – threats are implied but cryptic enough to be taken as little more than mild intimidation. It’s these mind games, and the subtle destabilizing effects they have on the young couple’s relationship that invoke interesting potential. Everything is happening just under the surface and, aside from a slightly too sharp barb or two from Jackson, the actors play it as a real and believable exam of suburban tension.

Of course the audience can’t be trusted with subtlety and so the Paul Haggis “Crash”-like sledgehammer approach rears its ugly head. The Abel character descends quickly into caricature – a believable enough macho poser who snarls throwaway derisive comments about his wimpy liberal neighbor turns into a spiteful, racist, conservative bully and ultimately a homicidal-intentioned violent offender. Combined with Jackson’s typical blustery but always engaging delivery, and a character motivation monologue so insipid as to be offensive, what could’ve been a richly insidious and manipulative antagonist becomes little more than your typical Hollywood movie monster.

It’s a shame as everyone else stays reasonably credible throughout. The often shirtless Patrick Wilson as the likable easy going young husband who has his own issues with race and authority figures, Kerry Washington as the beautiful and understanding young wife, even the young actors playing Jackson’s kids do solid work and make their various characters quite real and sympathetic. The couple’s relationship feels genuine throughout, and there’s various character traits which thankfully go unexplained which again add credibility to the setup.

It’s a shame that the LaBute of old rarely is on display here. The dramatic moments exploring racial tension and abuse of authority in the various conversations are touched upon but always ditched in favor of generic thriller actions and thrills. Its casual approach to racism and even sexism at times is obviously supposed to shock – yet will do so only amongst the most shut-in of white conservative viewers. Had they dropped the thriller conventions and toned down Jackson’s character to create a more subtle, smart and provocative work it might have been a success. As is, it’s just an interesting but forgettable piece with a little more going on than most other films of this type.