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Lakeview Terrace hits a screeching dead end

by Glen Baity

No matter where you live, one rule is universal: You can only be as happy as your closest neighbor allows you to be. Like sitting outside on a summer evening? Not if the guy next door blasts the Wu-Tang Clan until 3 a.m. Enjoy a nice dip in the pool? Try doing it with Wilson leering at you over the fence. It could only make matters worse if this neighbor were kind of a bully. And basically above the law. Young married couple Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) find they’ve landed in just this predicament in Lakeview Terrace, Neil LaBute’s fiery, frustrating thriller about race, class and politics in a modern, upscale Los Angeles suburb. The two have scarcely begun unpacking in their starter home when they run afoul of their new neighbor, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), an LAPD officer with a king-sized chip on his shoulder and a mile-wide mean streak. He’s especially fond of thinly veiled, racially charged comments (Chris is white, Lisa is black) designed to keep the two on edge. The rift that develops between the neighbors, as they so often do, starts with small grievances — cigarette butts tossed on the ground, a poorly-placed security light — but things get out of hand quickly. Before long, Chris and Lisa are in an all out war with a power-tripping egomaniac who has no compunction about using his badge as a bludgeon. Jackson does well in the villain’s role, which has a little more meat to it than I honestly expected. It’s easy to forget in this post-Snakes On a Plane part of his career, but Jackson can do more than just scream and flare his nostrils. Watch how he plays Abel, with a hostile smile and a stare that could melt iron — this guy is scary, and the script by David Loughery and Howard Korder makes him alternately sympathetic and menacing, so he’s not just some mindless brute. We learn toward the midway point that Abel came from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, which goes a long way toward explaining his toughness and distrust for others. A high-tension arrest halfway through also casts some light on the love-hate relationship Abel has with the people he protects and serves. But there’s a specific reason Chris and Lisa’s interracial relationship gets under his skin (warning: a few spoilers ahead) — Abel’s wife died three years ago, and he suspects she was having an affair with her boss, a white man, when it happened. Ergo, he hates the very thought of an interracial couple, and isn’t shy about making his feelings known. This rings false, and it’s frankly disappointing. Lakeview Terrace starts as a refreshing, smarter-than-average thriller (especially compared to LaBute’s last film, a bizarre, borderline unwatchable remake of The Wicker Man), and it doesn’t flinch when confronting thorny racial issues. What a letdown, then: Abel, who pulled himself out of poverty and seems to have a complicated understanding of racial politics in modern America, has a petty, unconvincing reason for his reign of terror. The film also, for no good reason, calls it quits on a few interesting subplots involving Abel’s strong-arm approach to parenting, as well an internal-affairs investigation that threatens to destroy his long career. Both of these storylines are set up at length, and abandoned when the main plot starts to heat up. The kids get packed off to their aunt’s house, and the IA inquiry just doesn’t come up in conversation again. In spite of its flaws, Lakeview Terrace is undeniably engaging, but it misses its chance to really shine by making Abel, in the end, a bit too ordinary. Add to that the fact that the ending recalls — vividly — the climax of Antoine Fuqua’s superior Training Day and you’ve got a film that starts strong only to sputter out when it matters. One of Jackson’s better roles in recent memory is ultimately wasted in a film that ends up offering little beyond standard suburbanite paranoia. To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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