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.
The film might have worked better if the complicated Chris/Lisa storylines were played up and the Abel Turner/psychopath angle was played down. As is, the film's verisimilitude is hindered by the sheer extremism of Turner's actions. Though Turner's character starts out believable and empathetic enough (the first time we see him he is at the foot of his bed, praying), he soon becomes almost a caricature—a venomous, deranged, amoral man committed to torturing an innocent couple just because they offend his skewed racial sensibilities. By the end of the film, the wild-eyed, campy Jackson of Pulp Fiction/Snakes on a Plane takes over and Terrace occasionally turns inadvertently comedic. Ultimately I think Jackson is too big a personality for a film like this, though I'm not sure who else could have pulled off the role of Abel Turner.
Apart from Jackson, the film is very well cast. Patrick Wilson is the consummate preppie white boy, perfectly fit for the role of Chris Mattson—a privileged yuppie who went to Berkeley on a lacrosse scholarship, smokes organic cigarettes (when the wife isn't looking), and enjoys hip-hop music as he drives home from the office. But it is Kerry Washington who really impresses, in the role of Chris' wife, Lisa. She's the most likeable character in the film and shows great range of subtle emotion, holding within herself the unspoken concerns and insecurities of a woman caught in a culturally precarious position.
Labute does a good job with his actors, as he always does, though it is apparent that he was born and bred in theater directing. He is prone to melodrama and heavy-handed cinematic embellishments (such as the wildfire backdrop that is clearly meant to underscore the unpredictable danger and combustible "heat" of the situation), and the lack of many location/set changes feels at times a little too theatrical and a bit claustrophobic.
Still, he manages to create some interesting characters and tension-filled action scenes. The film succeeds at pointing out the complexities of racism—how it is not always what we think it is, that it exists in many forms and from many perspectives, etc. And for all its hyperbole, the figure of Abel Turner does resonate with a lot of the contemporary racial divisions and problems in America. Turner is old school, a rule-keeper, a stalwart who came of age in the LAPD days of Rodney King and is still uncomfortable cozying up to white people. For him, it is all still black and white, and that's where he'd like to stay. He's totally uneasy about of intermixing races and feels betrayed that a "sister" like Lisa would choose to marry a blindingly white man like Chris.
But even with a complicated backstory that tries to explain some of Turner's overreactions, he never comes across as completely real; just a lonely, angry, resentful sociopath who has been pushed to the breaking point.
And ultimately this is the problem of Terrace as a whole: it is slick, dramatic, and occasionally convincing, but at the end of the day it feels less like reality and more like Hollywood-does-a-race-fable.Discussion starters
- Are there any justifications for Abel Turner's desire to get the Mattsons out of the neighborhood?
- Evaluate the response of Chris and Lisa to the aggressive assaults of Abel. How should they have responded? What does their response reveal about human nature?
- What does the film reveal about racism today? Do you think Abel represents the norm or a fringe opinion?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Lakeview Terrace is rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, violence, sexuality, language and some drug references. The film is about a serious topic—racism—and could be a valuable discussion starter for older teens and adults. There is some objectionable content, however: some scenes of sexuality, including an implied sex scene in a pool and a scene of strippers at a bachelor party (no nudity). There is also quite a bit of violence, though nothing too graphic, and several instances of profanity.
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