– Summary –
Director : Neil LaBute
Cast : Samuel L Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Jaishon Fisher, Regine Nehy, Jay Hernandez, Keith Loneker, Ron Glass, Caleeb Pinkett, Justin Chambers, Juan Diaz.
Year Of Release : 2008
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: When a mixed race couple move in next door, angry copper Sam Jackson does his level best to make them leave.
Review : Neighbours at war has been done better, usually on 60 Minutes. A lack of real tension undoes what could have been an awesome character study on racism and tolerance.
Tabloid television is full of stories about neighbours at war. Most of us can relate to having somebody living next door that pisses us off, or holds some bizarre vendetta against us. We’ve all seen the garbage TV shows displaying this trashy rubbish for all to see, and most of us wonder just how things can spiral out of control so badly. People installing night vision security cameras and sensors to guard against the folks from next door. So it came as no surprise to see a film like Lakeview Terrace arriving in the new release section of my local video rental. Films about neighbourhood violence aren’t plentiful these days; at least, the intelligent ones aren’t.
Samuel L Jackson, the busiest man in Hollywood, stars as LA Cop Abel Turner, a black man living in a predominantly white up-market neighbourhood, who is annoyed to learn that the new couple moving in next door are mixed race. Patrick Wilson (from Watchmen) and Kerry Washington (The Last King Of Scotland, Mr & Mrs Smith) play the Mattsons, Chris and Lisa, a young couple looking to start a new life on the cul de sac. However, their first night is spoiled by Abels massive floodlights shining onto their house, and into their bedroom window. Set against the analogous story of nearby wildfires getting closer and closer to their neighbourhood, the oppressive pall of imminent destruction casts a wide shadow across the film as a whole. The parallel ideas are great in theory, yet LaBute seems incapable of really moulding that concept together in a way that’s interesting.
The neighbourly problems between Turner and the Mattsons are dealt with civilly, until things take a nasty turn as Abel becomes more and more racist towards the couple, and the situation escalates significantly. Abels racism is skilfully played up by Jackson, who’s in his element here as the bitter, angry man with a twisted agenda. He doesn’t like the fact that a white man and a black woman are shacked up next door. He likes it even less that they’re friendly towards his children, especially his eldest daughter Celia. The Mattsons can’t call the cops on him, because Turner is one himself, and would simply deny everything. They can’t afford to move out again, because their financial situation prevents this. It’s rock and a hard place stuff.
With Abels behaviour becoming increasingly insane, both Chris and Lisa become paranoid that their safety is in question. Tension arises in their relationship as they struggle to find a way to deal with the belligerent cop next door, a man who we learn is on the very cusp of being sacked from his job, due to excessive violence. Lakeview Terrace is supposedly an examination of violence and racism, and considering it’s reverse racism (a black man being racist towards a white/black couple) this film could have been a real gem.
Sad to say, it isn’t. Director Neil LaBute, whose previous films include Nurse Betty and the remake of The Wicker Man, has tried hard to deliver a commercially accessible drama. Instead, Lakeview Terrace isn’t as powerful or controversial as I’d like. Instead of a script that builds up the tension and delivers some statements on modern bigotry, the film is content to plod along, relying on Jackson’s searing screen persona to inject some much needed drama into proceedings. The cast are uniformly excellent, with Jackson chewing through his scenes like the seasoned pro he is. Wilson and Washington each deliver the requisite shock and awe (Washington more so) at the proper moments, but their chemistry as a couple doesn’t sit right with me. They seem like a couple forced together by committee, rather than a naturally occurring relationship. Lisa’s father is against their relationship as well, although he’s nowhere near the same level of vitriol as Abel Turner.
The films central character plot is somewhat confusing, at least, the core emotional content is. Abel Turner sits somewhere between Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner; the motivation for his racism and bigotry isn’t well developed (or at least, doesn’t come across on screen), so the character bounces between sympathetic and outright lunacy. Jackson can jump between the two with consummate ease, but it’s the scripting that lets him down. He’s never given a real chance to develop beyond a simple generic cliché, although LaBute tries hard, and in the end I couldn’t figure out if I should have sympathy for the character or not. In the end, I chose not. Turner does some pretty despicable things to the Mattsons, and although truth is often stranger than fiction, this time I had a problem with it’s believability.
With the motivation of the central character underdeveloped, the film sags with it’s convoluted scenes of antagonism. The narrative isn’t strong enough to keep an audiences interest above a simple revenge fantasy, which is essentially what Lakeview Terrace becomes. The film contains so many potential thematic moments of substance, and neatly side-steps developing any of them, that it’s annoying. As a midday movie, Lakeview Terrace will hold enough suspense to keep only the most undiscerning viewer absorbed, but after a little reflection, you’ll find the film doesn’t have the required punch to really transcend the ordinary scripting.