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Patrick Wilson, newcomer in Lakeview Terrace

Samuel L. Jackson, neighbourhood ogre in Lakeview Terrace


Lakeview Terrace
cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, and Jay Hernandez

director: Neil LaBute

106 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Neil LaBute first came to prominence with the black and rather theatrical comedy In The Company of Men (1997), before reaching a wider audience with Nurse Betty (2000), his equally black examination of celebrity obsession. While neither film quite managed to be as incendiary or as intelligent as they could have been, they managed to earn LaBute a reputation as a filmmaker with, if not something interesting to say then, at the very least, a unique viewpoint. However, this burgeoning reputation suffered something of a set back with the comically ill-advised 2006 remake of The Wicker Man (1973) - a film that famously featured Nicolas Cage dressed as a bear whilst punching a woman in the face. Mercifully not as poor as The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace nonetheless fails to redeem LaBute as a filmmaker. In fact, it merely reminds us of some of the failings in his earlier work.

Chris (Patrick Wilson), and Lisa (Kerry Washington), are a mixed-race couple who move into a neighbourhood dominated by widower, single-father and police officer Abel (Jackson). Right from the start, there are tensions between the new neighbours as Abel's annoyance at the young couple 'christening' their pool blossoms into what seems to be a racially-inspired hatred of the couple and a desire to force them to move out of the neighbourhood. Initially, the annoyances are expressed through curt words and refusals to be civil but as the film goes on, the tension level rises smoothly until Abel is using his police powers to make the lives of Chris and Lisa an absolute misery.

Watching Lakeview Terrace is a bit like having an argument with a stupid person. Clearly, the stupid person is very emotional about the topic and the odd word or turn of phrase suggest that there might be something resembling a coherent thought motivating all of this noise but, ultimately, it is impossible to work out what it is that they are trying to say, so you just wind up acknowledging that they feel strongly about the issue, and then roll your eyes the second they are out of sight.

For example, the big idea behind the film's main plotline is that a black person might disapprove of a mixed-race relationship thereby making both a white and a black person a victim of a black person's prejudice. This big idea clearly challenges the default assumption that non-white people are always the victims of racism and never the guilty party. This is not only an interesting idea but it is an idea that deserves to be explored in film. However, having introduced the idea, LaBute does nothing with it. He even comes dangerously close to undermining the film's big idea by suggesting that Abel's racism might be a form of projected anger over the possibility that his wife was having an affair with a white man prior to her death. This crude piece of pop psychology is not only a disservice to the character of Abel but also to the issue itself.

Another interesting issue raised by the film is whether or not it is ever acceptable for a person to sabotage their own birth control in order to force their partner into starting a family they might not be ready for. Unfortunately, LaBute also fails to do anything with this idea. The sense of betrayal felt by Chris because of Lisa's actions never impacts the plot or the relationship between the characters. This being a work of mainstream American cinema it would be unheard of for Chris to demand that Lisa have an abortion or for the couple to break up over an unwanted child and so the only effect of Lisa's forcing of Chris' hand is that the characters have something to talk about in between scenes with Abel.

Given how badly exploited these ideas are it is difficult not to see them either as padding or as an attempt to make the film seem more intelligent than it actually is by shoe-horning in big social issues that have absolutely no impact upon the wider plot. It is as though Richard Curtis had decided to put a copy of The Myth Of Sisyphus (1942) into Hugh Grant's hand just so that he could then suggest to journalists that Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) is all about the futility of man's search for meaning in the face of existential absurdity. (NB: this is also a technique used by Jon Favreau in Iron Man; the film includes scenes set in Afghanistan and the hero fights members of the Taliban but the film does not actually say anything about Afghanistan, the arms trade or US foreign policy).

What makes this type of posing so irritating is that fact that if you ignore the padding, Lakeview Terrace is a very well directed film. LaBute paces the film superbly; slowly increasing the tension from minor disagreement and socially awkward squabbles to death threats and unpleasant abuses of power. He also coaxes a refreshingly low-key performance out of Samuel L. Jackson, a marked contrast to Jackson's increasingly lazy and self-parodying performances in films he should not even be seeing at the cinema, let alone appearing in. The film impresses visually by featuring the lovely visual motif of a raging fire whose gradual approach to the neighbourhood mirrors the increasingly hostile relationship between Abel and the couple. LaBute even manages to fill the parts of Chris and Lisa with some substance despite leaving most of their character-building scenes on the cutting-room floor.

As with much of LaBute's back catalogue, I am not convinced that the director has much of anything to say about the issues he touches upon. I grant that he recognises that these issues are, in fact, 'issues' but I do not detect the levels of insight or engagement that might elevate LaBute above the level of an intellectual tourist. However, despite this Lakeview Terrace is a well made thriller that will capture your attention for a little less than two hours, it might even support being watched more than once. The DVD includes as extras some deleted scenes and a very thorough and engaging commentary track by LaBute himself.

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