Friday, September 19, 2008

No Shades of Grey

Lakeview Terrace
Directed by Neil LaBute
Written by David Loughery and Howard Korder
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson
Opens September 19, 2008

Jackson in Lakeview Terrace
Racial issues are not as black and white as what’s shown in Lakeview Terrace, which demonstrates what happens after an interracial couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson, moves into an exclusive Southern California cul-de-sac. Their next door neighbor just happens to be Abel Turner, a hostile black L.A. cop who’s quite unhappy to see them and makes their lives miserable in variously nefarious ways–none of which they can pin on him with any certainty.

The movie’s basic problem stems from Abel’s response to white Chris and black Lisa’s arrival: since the neighborhood is already ethnically diverse and he doesn’t seem to harbor ill feelings toward others based on race, Abel seems less racist than merely psychotic. This perhaps explains the movie’s risible plot twists, since it’s first and foremost a thriller, but it doesn’t make Abel’s character any more believable

Even though it’s basically preposterous, at the beginning, Lakeview Terrace sets up its situation promisingly. When Abel notices the new couple moving in next door, he assumes that the lovely young Lisa and the handsome, older black gentleman are husband and wife, and Chris–the sweaty, white guy bringing in the boxes from the van–is merely the hired mover. Imagine his surprise when another peek outside shows him Lisa and Chris exchanging kisses and intimate moments as the distinguished black man (who turns out to be Lisa’s father) walks away to talk on his cell. In a few fleet moments, Abel’s attitude toward newlyweds Chris and Lisa is established–after which, all credibility flies out the window.

Lakeview Terrace is structured like any old-fashioned Hollywood thriller from Cape Fear to Jaws to Fatal Attraction: antagonists are introduced and small-scale scares ensue, then ever more dastardly ones occur before the “monster” is finally eradicated. Following this time-honored blueprint, Lakeview Terrace has its effective “gotcha!” moments, but there’s no overarching vision, just square pegs being jammed into round holes.

Of course, this being a Neil LaBute movie (even though he was the writer), its racial provocations are presented as slaps in the face. Abel derisively says to Chris, who listens to rap music in his car because Lisa doesn’t like it, “You can listen to that noise all night, but in the morning, you’ll still be white”; later, approaching fellow officers who shush each other’s kidding around, he tells them, “I’ve heard nigger jokes before.”

To further underscore these conflicts, wildfires move ever closer to the neighborhood during an unusual summer heat wave–and LaBute makes sure to continually refer to them, showing TV news bulletins first, then firemen and police blocking off streets and warning inhabitants to leave. This blatant metaphor contrasts with a great chance that was missed to humanize these characters by better developing Abel’s teenage daughter and son: director and writers nod in this direction when Lisa befriends the girl, but the scene is used solely to set up a particularly laughable reaction by Abel (he starts stripping in front of his bikini-clad daughter and flabbergasted neighbor). In sum, Lakeview Terrace limits itself to skimming the surface of its incendiary subject, similar to LaBute’s regular output of plays that touch on hot-button issues without digging underneath.

The lead actors can’t do much more than act out this morality play with minimal need for sensitivity and intelligence; instead, they simply coast on their considerable charms (Kerry Washington’s Lisa and Patrick Wilson’s Chris) or anger (Samuel Jackson’s Abel). The movie ends with a legitimate question mark, but this late attempt at subtlety begs another question: why was a sledgehammer used for the previous two hours?

Originally posted on

No comments: