Arthouse filmmaker Neil LaBute takes his best commercial swing yet with Lakeview Terrace, a solidly constructed drama of suburban friction and unrest that only fully yields to genre convention in its final wild, gunplay-fueled 10 minutes. For the majority of its running time, Lakeview Terrace is more of a character study than somewhat similar neighbors-gone-wild thrillers like Pacific Heights and Unlawful Entry. While not enough of a straight thriller to attract widescale younger audiences, the film is foremost a very effective reservoir for the cool menace that star Samuel L. Jackson can project, and will connect largely on the basis of that strength.
The story revolves around a young couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, respectively), who buy their first home in an upper-middle-class southern California suburb, and immediately clash with their new neighbor Abel Turner (Jackson), a stern single father of two who makes known his disapproval of their interracial relationship. Abel is also a veteran police officer, which complicates matters when passive-aggressive acts of harassment that could be misconstrued (a mock parking ticket on the couple’s first day in town, security lights on Abel’s house shining directly into the Mattson’s bedroom) give way to various acts of vandalization.
For a while Chris and Lisa try to make nice, even offering Abel’s teen daughter the use of their swimming pool — a welcome oasis in the sweltering heat, which is partially responsible for nearby raging wildfires. When Abel’s campaign of harassment persists, however, Chris and Lisa succumb to measures of payback. Things come to a boil just as a fire descends from the hill that abuts their land.
More or less a critical darling since his incendiary 1997 debut, In the Company of Men, LaBute has never scored with domestic audiences to the tune of more than $25 million. Lakeview Terrace, however, represents the slickest packaging yet of the themes that have most often defined his work — the inherent tension of interpersonal relationships, and how differences (in race, gender and religion) often radically divide us. The screenplay handles the story treatment fairly seriously, taking care to nicely shade and fill in Abel’s back story, but also spotlight his manipulativeness. The first hour of the film is very effective in building tension. Abel speaks in coded vagaries that allow him to maintain plausible deniablity, but flashes of his temper — including an argument over global warming at garden party — reveal a tightly wound man barely in control of his emotions.
Apart from an implausible conversation between Chris and Abel after a stakes-raising incident, the only real narrative stumbles are the aforementioned ending and the inclusion of bickering discord between Chris and Lisa about when to start a family. The latter plot strand slightly factors into proceedings, but comes across chiefly as just a way to stall action with regards to the main story. The film’s aggressive finale, meanwhile, feels like a concession to commercial pressure, and out of step with the nuance and care with which the rest of the story is told. For the full review, from Screen International, click here. (Sony/Screen Gems, PG-13, 110 minutes)