Director Neil Labute’s Lakeview Terrace works on two different levels. On one, it’s a somewhat effective (and largely metaphorical) story about the way that a couple’s relationship can be affected by forces both outside and in. On the other, it’s exactly the race-driven suburban thriller that the trailers suggest. On the first level, the movie is somewhat touching; on the second, it’s an abject failure.
Perhaps the movie has faded out of the public consciousness enough now that I should explain what we’re getting ourselves into. Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) is a white man who has just moved into an upscale neighborhood with his black wife Lisa (Kerry Washington). It is not long before they wind up on the radar of their next door neighbor, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Turner is a police officer who is, I think, slowly losing his mind. It’s amazing how often people tell him that he’s different, but he brushes it off each time and nobody pushes it. When the couple moves in next door, he is immediately repulsed by the fact that their relationship is interracial and makes no attempts to hide this fact from the husband. It’s not long before he’s ramping up his hostility in frightening and increasingly sadistic ways. The movie rides high on the tension created by Turner’s evil grins, the continual questions about what lengths he will go to in order to “win” the fight between himself and his new-found enemies, the neighbors.
This, actually, works to some extent. Repeat viewings will probably not yield the same level of tension, but what thriller can? The main draw here is Jackson’s performance. He’s menacing even when he’s not abusing his power as an officer of the law, just in the way that he glowers across the lawn at the Mattsons. It gives one the same feeling that watching any number of Ben Stiller comedies can, that stifling notion that nobody else can see the bizarre things going on around and wind up blaming Stiller for any misunderstandings. Here, the Mattsons play the Stiller role, calling the police or requesting the assistance of Lisa’s father, only to be told that they are wrong or should ignore their neighbor’s malicious advances.
It gets increasingly difficult to believe. There is a throwaway line early in the film where the Mattsons are warned against taking legal action against Turner because it will cause more harm than good, but as the man’s aggression rises it becomes hard to accept that a call to the police wouldn’t result in some kind of accord, even if Turner is part of the police force himself. I just don’t buy this idea that simply being a police officer makes you immune to investigation; when Turner throws a loud party with dozens of other off-duty police officers at 3 AM, it seems that it would be more useful to file a complaint with those who are still on-duty, rather than attempting some macho confrontation. Further, it often seems that the couple would benefit most from simply ignoring the sick man who lives next to them, but that never occurs to either Chris or Lisa. Would the tension have mounted if the couple had simply purchased curtains early in the film when Turner’s security lights were shining in their window, rather than starting a series of bitter arguments? And the way that Chris waffles with respect to Abel, despising then befriending then despising him again – it quickly became too much to bear.
There was some time, as we got to see some of the actions happening in Abel’s life away from the influence of the neighbors, that I came believe that what the movie was really trying to portray was a character study of a sad, old man. A man who needs medical attention, whose psyche has been damaged so badly by years and years of dealing with the scum of SoCal and hardened by the sudden death of his wife. I saw a man who could not adequately function in his job anymore, whose neurosis had caused him to expend energy in attacking a couple who were not part of the problem at all. I was hoping that the movie would end unconventionally, with the cracks in Turner’s personality eventually getting so bad that he was forced, by choice or by coercion, to seek medical assistance with combating his own growing mental illness. Instead, Turner becomes involved in a criminal investigation mere days after being questioned about using excessive force during a domestic dispute and yet his involvement is hardly questioned. And, in sticking true to its genre, the movie claws its way toward a generic finale that ditches all traces of humanity that might have been salvaged previously.
There is much more I could say, but let me step back a moment and explain what works a little bit better. There are several moments which are kind of clunky at setting this up, but Abel is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Chris and Lisa’s relationship. They are still a young couple, but their priorities lie in different areas: Chris wants to focus on his career, whereas Lisa is interested in starting a family. Chris feels threatened by Lisa’s father, who slights the younger man, it seems, because he is white. A friend later congratulates Chris on bedding a black woman, proclaiming the act to be an amazing feat, and our protagonist does not know how to respond. These concerns are driving a wedge between the couple – they have no lines of communication to successfully talk to one another about their individual thoughts and fears, so their separation builds. When Abel begins to show resistance to the couple, Chris pours himself into the challenge of facing this adversary. Which is not to say that Lisa does not face him as well, but more to indicate that the couple are putting their energy toward something external – Chris, his career and insecurity regarding his marriage; Lisa, her lack of motivation in her work, coupled with her desire to start a family (not to mention that she prods at Chris’ insecurity by suggesting that his reluctance to have children is related to their relationship). This comes to a head, symbolically, in the form of the neighbor Abel. There are times when the metaphor is handled deftly, as with the light shining in on the couple or is a particularly disturbing moment late in the movie where Chris and Abel spar with garden tools through a fence while Lisa sobs to her husband, “Have you lost your mind?”
In a way, he has. There’s a parallel between the two men, if we look at them both as characters instead of thematic devices, in that they are both railing against something that they do not otherwise know how to confront. To think of the movie in that way makes their entirely physical struggle against one another (which devolves into violence) into a twisted emotional release. I don’t know how to talk to my wife, but I know I’m gonna fuck you up. So if we flip back to the metaphor, we have characters who realize that there is something profoundly wrong going on in their lives but reacting to it in ways that are over-the-top at best, totally insane at worst.
So I guess you could say I’m conflicted, when it comes to Lakeview Terrace. There are ways in which the film works for me, when I think about the film in more abstract terms and don’t think about the lousy interactions between the characters. And there are ways in which the film doesn’t work, when it tries to make Turner into a villain instead of a man. It’s hard to deny that the film achieves a gripping sense of tension throughout, but what exactly does it achieve beyond that? If nothing else, I know that the cop-out finale disgraced the movie either way you wish to interpret it. As the physical ending, the culmination of the events that played out through the movie and come together just before the credits roll, it treats the characters as pawns rather than human beings. As a metaphor for the relationship struggle between Chris and Lisa coming to an end, the moment is childishly simple and insulting in that no major breakthrough was made and yet the movie seems to want us to accept the issues as resolved.
I wouldn’t say that Lakeview Terrace left questions unanswered, so much as it failed to address them at all. It nods to race, relationships, society, morality, et al… and walks on by. The more I think about it, the less I care for this movie.