Lakeview Terrace

starring Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington
written by David Loughery and Howard Korder & directed by Neil LaBute
Rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, violence, sexuality, language and some drug references.

Chris and Lisa Mattson (Wilson and Washington), a young interracial couple, move in next-door to Abel Turner (Jackson), a black policeman and widower raising his two children alone. Before long, Abel makes it painfully clear that he has a problem with Chris and Lisa’s marriage, and he has decided to make it his personal mission to drive them out of the neighborhood. As a wildfire draws closer to the homes on Lakeview Terrace, the battle of wills between Abel and Chris threatens to escalate out of control and destroy them and their families.

I’ve probably made that plot sound like it has more depth than it actually does. It begins well enough, building tension slowly and taking its time to allow the characters’ (good and bad alike) to discover that all is not well. Abel keeps his prejudice just under the radar, prompting Chris and Lisa to misdirect their annoyance towards each other rather than at him. It becomes obvious that events which under normal circumstances would appear very straightforward are here clouded by race, a failing all of the characters share at one point or another. The result, quite intentionally, is a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience.

The movie hangs on to our attention by its fingernails as it roars into act two, demanding involvement with a great deal of yelling, noise, and intense close-ups that threaten bodily harm to characters that we may not realize we’ve been given no real reason to care about. There is a somewhat lengthy sequence where Abel and his partner respond to a domestic disturbance which doesn’t seem to have much relevance to anything, until it prompts a semi-important plot development a few scenes later. It felt noticeably out of place because this is the sort of movie where everything on-screen is part of an inevitable flow of events forcing its characters down a particular path.

The script falters further when both Chris and Lisa begin to do things that we have trouble believing; stupid, ridiculous things that escalate tension pointlessly without adding anything of significance to the story. Have the writers really done such a poor job introducing us to these characters that we do not understand them yet? Or are they forcibly manipulating their behavior in order to manipulate the audience’s response?

By now is has become impossible not to notice the presence of a raging fire in the area. It has formed a part of the background noise of the movie from the very first scene, when Abel wakes up to a news report about it on the radio. Its thick clouds of smoke blocking out the horizon have achieved a visual presence. As it blazes inexorably closer to the characters’ homes, and begins to fortify a position in the dialogue, the audience has got to start wondering: Is this uncontrolled California fire a pervasive, clumsy metaphor for Abel’s burning, all-consuming and destructive hatred, or is it an openly-contrived plot device destined to play a role in the inevitable climax? Would you believe . . . both?

Jackson turns in a powerful performance in Lakeview Terrace, though when I saw “powerful” I am primarily referring to his intimidating screen presence. He makes an excellent villain. In fact, he is such a force in this movie that no other character stands a chance of holding our attention when he is around (and sometimes even when he isn’t). His characterization is so strong, particularly in comparison to the impotence of the others, that his villainy may even attract some sympathy. But when he finally reveals the true reason for his hatred of Chris and Lisa, and it turns out to be mind-bogglingly stupid, he loses almost all remaining interest Lakeview Terrace might have held.

Events move on apace from there, and Lakeview Terrace very quickly devolves into a plain-vanilla thriller (no pun intended). There is not a single second in the final ten minutes that you haven’t seen in a dozen movies just like this before. The behavior of the heroes in those final minutes makes so little sense, that I couldn’t help but throw up my arms in disgust. And when Abel finally does get what is coming to him, it is only because he betrays every rule of behavior that has governed his character for the preceding hundred-something minutes. He goes up in an eruption of stupidity. Though it may promise interesting characters, a taut story, and a hard-hitting look at an explosive issue, Lakeview Terrace is really only a somewhat tawdry thriller marred by its laborious enslavement to genre conventions.

~ by Jared on September 19, 2008.

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