What would you do if a couple of Prius driving, Utne Reader
subscribing, Zinfandel drinking, global warming believing, organic food eating yuppies moved in next door and had sex in their outdoor pool where your young children can and did see them? Well, if you’re right-winging LAPD veteran Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson
) you declare a war of wills on the dirty, filthy hippies and let the conservatives in the audience live vicariously through your many misdeeds.
If loving Abel Turner is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Take the nice young couple up against the lawless LAPD officer in Unlawful Entry
(1992), mix it with a Consenting Adults
like anxiety of being stuck next door to someone insinuating himself into your life, and then stir it all together with a psychological dash of Falling Down
(1993) and you’ve got yourself Lakeview Terrace
Of the three, Terrace
most resembles Falling Down
, which is also set in the modern-day dystopia of Los Angeles and tells the story of a man brought to the brink by a world he can no longer control. And like Falling Down’s William D-FENS Foster
) you’re not sure if you should root for the antagonist until the film gets in the way of itself in the third act and answers the question for you.
Abel Turner is a widower living at the end of an upscale cul de sac in the San Fernando Valley. Per the norm, summer in the valley is blistering hot and the annual fire season rages. Abel’s a righteous man, a conservative man, trying to keep order in this world. On the beat he's sincere about protect and serve, off the beat he keeps a nice house, says his prayers in the morning and scolds his young son and daughter for any lapse into Ebonics. On and off the street he can get a little rough, but he’s no sadist – he just wants people to do what they’re supposed to.
Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson
, Kerry Washington
) move in next door and before you can say “Or, what?” the tension’s as thick as a knife. And after the pool incident, it is ‘game on’.
“Or, what?” is Abel’s favorite response to every request, plea, or veiled threat from the Mattson’s — and there are many of them, all laced with racial and political subtext. The highlight of these verbal chess matches is a delicious scene where Abel, with equal parts condescension and menace, mocks Mattson’s George W. Bush bashing friends and stuffs their global warming theories right down their throat. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen Samuel L. Jackson take on the brie-eating crowd.
This is the seventh film from Neil LaBute
, who made his directorial debut with the near-masterpiece In The Company of Men
(1997). LaBute’s vision of humanity is darker than most, but at least he understands that what makes human beings fascinating is how endlessly complicated they are. Lakeview Terrace
is Abel Turner’s film. It opens on him. It sympathizes with him, and the great irony of the story is that we don’t much care for the endlessly self-involved Chris and Lisa all that much — even as they’re increasingly victimized and terrorized by Abel.
The racial component is equally fascinating. Does Abel resent Chris because he’s married to a black woman, or is it that Chris, who went to Berkeley on a lacrosse scholarship (nice touch), likes to “play black” cranking rap music in his Prius? I can’t speak for Abel, but I know why I don’t like Chris, and the fact that Lisa’s dad also doesn’t like him much only makes the relationship dynamic all the more interesting.
The film’s downfall is that it’s a thriller and after eighty smart, compelling minutes the third act loses both the smart and compelling in exchange for story beats straight out of a television movie. The biggest loss is that up to this point the film had done an admirable job of not taking sides, and once it does all the specialness drains from it.
Samuel L. Jackson is the whole movie. Calmer than usual but still prone to Samuel L. Jacksonian fits of righteous rage, he delivers a perfectly nuanced performance. We may not agree with everything Abel does, but, as Chris Rock might say, we understand. The story’s weakness (besides act three) is the underwritten and cliched marital issues between Lisa and Chris. She wants a baby, he’s not so sure, and the stress of dealing with Abel brings to the surface the relationship cracks that were already blah, blah, blah… Nothing we haven’t seen before and Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington aren’t interesting enough actors to let us forget that.
strikes me as one of those films destined to find a receptive audience once it hits television. A find, of sorts, that will loop endlessly on TNT now and again because it will play at home even better than it does in the theatre.
That’s a hint.