I can sense the movie that Neil LaBute wants “Lakeview Terrace” to be. It’s akin to “Crash,” a movie about complex characters and their latent racism, but not as complicated or artsy. LaBute wants it to be a movie about reasonable people who do things under pressure of which they never imagined themselves capable. N Director LaBute literally turns up the heat as the movie progresses; set in the L.A. summertime, the days get hotter and hotter and raging wildfires grow closer and closer. Obviously this symbolizes the escalating racial tension between the characters. Unfortunately, the film buckles under the heat before the characters do, and retreats into the cooler, simpler formula of a conventional thriller in its last half hour.
Samuel L. Jackson is a beat cop living in an awfully nice house for a beat cop. Maybe he collected some life insurance money when his wife died in a horrible car crash. He’s left raising two kids, and does so with an iron fist, certain that someday they’ll thank him, determined they won’t end up like the kids he chases down alleys all day. Naturally they hate him. His world is very black and white – in every possible sense – and when an interracial, yuppie couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door, they rub him the wrong way.
When I saw the trailers for “Lakeview Terrace,” I thought it was going to be a pretty conventional thriller about a evil racist psychopath who terrorizes a pure and innocent young couple. You know, “Cape Fear” but in an L.A. suburb. That’s the way it was advertised. But Samuel L. Jackson plays his character not as a psychopath, or any other kind of –path, but as a man who has struggled and fought to carve out a place for himself in the world, has a tenuous grasp on that place as the world changes, and maintains it by being aggressive and legalistic. He’s certainly racist; Roger Ebert points out that if the races were reversed – if this were a movie about a white man tormenting a interracial couple – no actor in the world could make him sympathetic, and few directors could even get the movie made. But the races aren’t reversed, and that’s just the point. When Jackson says to Wilson, “you think you can just take whatever you want,” there’s an awful lot of history behind that line. It could never be credibly uttered by a white man.
“Lakeview Terrace” is at its best when Jackson is finding indirect ways to turn up the heat on Wilson and Washington’s relationship; they are having arguments that are because of Jackson, but not about him or anything he’s done. They’re also arguments about masculinity and marriage, for what it’s worth. The movie keeps grinding this gear, but never really clicks into it and goes with it. The main problem might be that Wilson and Washington are never really given time to be nuanced characters; they don’t bear the depth or weight of Jackson’s character. Three or four times in the movie I got frustrated with the writing; people needed to get into each other’s faces and really express what they were thinking or feeling, but instead said something flippant or veiled and walked away.
And so because “Lakeview Terrace” never manages to rise to the level it’s rising toward, it eventually sinks. One of Jackson’s pranks goes wrong, and now it’s about who knows what and how far he will go to protect himself. It ends in a pistol showdown, complete with the police barricade and helicopter spotlight. Really, this is all fine and cinematic and everything, but “Lakeview Terrace” showed signs of being a much more interesting movie than it turned out to be.
- if you really like Samuel L. Jackson. He does fine work here.
- If you’d like to start a conversation with a group of friends about race relations in America, and have seen “Crash” one too many times.
- if you’re looking for the movie advertised in the trailers.
- if your’e looking for a powerful, balanced, nuanced meditation on race relations in America.