When the interracial Mattson newlyweds buy their first home, the first thing they discover about their neighbor, black LAPD cop Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson, "Snakes on a Plane," "Black Snake Moan") is that he has an alarming sense of humor. Tensions mount when they begin to realize Turner has a problem with a white man being with a black woman and intends to harass them until they leave "Lakeview Terrace."
Director Neil Labute ("In the Company of Men," "The Wicker Man") may be a hired hand on "Lakeview Terrace," but the film fits his oeuvre of men behaving badly. This time it's racism stoked by jealousy that fuels one man's crimes against humanity, with a backdrop of encroaching L.A. wildfire that suggests both the Rodney King riots and Hell itself.
Like Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," "Lakeview Terrace" opens with news reports about record breaking heat - it's to be 111 degrees in the valley and it's only May. Single dad Abel is trying to get kids Marcus (Jaishon Fisher) and Celia (Regine Nehy, "Pride") out for school and his rigidly strict rules make it a struggle - Marcus is wearing the wrong player's Lakers shirt and Celia is listening to music at the table. As Abel folds laundry, he notices new neighbors moving in next door, assuming that Lisa Mattson's (Kerry Washington, "Ray," "The Last King of Scotland") father (Ron Glass, "Serenity") is her husband, shock dawning into understanding when the white 'mover,' Chris (Patrick Wilson, "Hard Candy," "Evening") puts his hand on Lisa's thigh.
Chris, who hasn't exactly been embraced by his father-in-law, reads Abel from their first meeting, when the cop, who makes a nightly 'neighborhood watch round, pretends to rob him as he sneaks a cig in his car. Abel informs Chris that he can listen to rap all night, but he'll still be white in the morning. At first, Lisa thinks Chris is transferring his problems with her dad onto Abel, but as the intimidations and psychological mind games mount and Lisa has a bad encounter of her own with the guy, she gets scared. The couple, already at odds over the start of a family, now disagree on whether or not they should leave their home.
Writers David Loughery ("Passenger 57") and Howard Korder ("Stealing Sinatra") have written some great dialogue for Jackson, who plays a good cop/bad cop routine all by himself, but they go over the top with a bogeyman ending that recalls "Training Day." Still, this is a film that presents us with all types and lets them smash against each other, most notably at the Mattson's housewarming party. They also give Turner a personal reason for his reaction to the Mattson marriage that makes him a bit more complex than a simple racist.
Jackson has a ball with this role and makes the tension jump right off the screen. His killer smile combined with that sharklike stare makes him the embodiment of menace. Labute showcases the actor, giving him dominance in the frame and in one particularly brilliant bit, capping his latest latent threat with the sudden glare of the automatic security light which has been an early and consistent bone of contention. We also get a sense of Abel on the job, intimidating a drug dealing informant (former NFLer Keith Loneke, "Leatherheads") and epitomizing the phrase 'police brutality' in his handling of a suicidal husband (Caleeb Pinkett) holding his family hostage. Washington is also very good as the wife in need of convincing of the threat next door and she's dynamic going toe to toe with Jackson. She and Wilson convey the arc of a marriage from playful to stormy and Washington also connects like a maternal girlfriend with Nehy. Wilson spends much of the film being cowed, but he does emote the pressures coming at him from several different sources. Young Nehy is good as the rebellious teen who just wants to live a little. As Abel's partner, Jay Hernandez ("Hostel") just comes across as another minority in the mix.
The production is first rate, although the constant referral to the Mattson's Lakeview Terrace abode as a starter home will be jaw dropping to most. The symbolism of the wildfire may be overt, but its depiction is terrific from the early coils of smoke on the horizon to something approaching a bomb cloud to the smoke, ashes and heat of evacuation time.
"Lakeview Terrace" is one slickly produced thriller that both delves into serious issues and turns into a monster movie. It's popcorn with some serious flavor.
Robin did not see this film.
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