Lakeview Terrace is like Crash in a cul-de-sac. It's a film about race; it's set in L.A.; it features a corrupt LAPD cop. Ultimately, it doesn't take itself quite as seriously as Crash does, however, and instead of using car crashes as a metaphor it uses another Southern California staple: out-of-control wildfires. Though sometimes a bit heavy-handed (how can a film about race not be?), and frequently over-acted (in the case of one Samuel L. Jackson), Terrace is, in the end, a solid bit of entertaining melodrama with some vaguely astute observations about life and racism.
The film, directed by Neil Labute (Nurse Betty, Possession) follows a familiar setup: wide-eyed young couple—Chris and Lisa Mattson (played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington)—moves into a new home, expecting it to be a white-picket-fence fairy tale. Of course, all is not well in paradise. In this case, it is an unstable next-door neighbor who is hell-bent on driving the newcomers out of Dodge. This neighbor, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), is a single father, widower and veteran LAPD cop with a lot of psychological problems. His main beef is obvious: the Mattsons are a mixed couple (he's white, she's black) and Abel will have none of that on his block.
Turner makes it his mission to torment the Mattsons in whatever ways that he can. He shines outdoor spotlights into the Mattson's bedroom windows, plays loud music late at night, and takes every opportunity he can get to verbally abuse and taunt them. At the Mattsons' house warming party, for example, Abel shows up and proceeds to make uncomfortable and racially insensitive remarks that offend nearly everyone at the party. As the film progresses, the tension between the Mattsons and the villainous Abel reaches crisis levels, escalating to the point of extreme violence by the end of the film.
The "Abel problem" quickly causes the marriage of Chris and Lisa to suffer, which ultimately makes for some of the film's most interesting drama. Chris, already feeling beleaguered by friends and family for having married a black girl, is determined to deal with Abel himself and show Lisa that he is capable and strong enough to stand up for their marriage. Abel is the spoiler in what turns out to be a not-so-pristine relationship between Chris and Lisa—his overt racism exposes some underlying tensions and trust issues in the Mattsons' relationship that make it all that much harder for them to resist the toxic verbal missives being hurled at them from the guy next door.
Things really bubble up for Chris and Lisa when Lisa finds out she is pregnant. This is not what Chris had thought they'd planned on, and he reacts in a revealingly cruel manner: by accusing Lisa of purposefully skipping her birth control pills. One might chalk it all up to stress, but Labute—who in his early films (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) takes special pleasure in foregrounding relational cruelty—seems to hint that there are deeper issues in this marriage that are coming to the surface on account of the Abel crisis. We never get the sense that Chris and Lisa resent each other, but their picture-perfect façade is certainly undermined during the course of the film.