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Lakeview Terrace

Sony Pictures // PG-13 // January 27, 2009
List Price: $28.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Cameron McGaughy | posted January 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author
"Not everybody up here is somebody you want to live next to..."
- Abel Turner

The Movie
About halfway through Lakeview Terrace, Lisa (Kerry Washington) has a heated confrontation with her angry neighbor, seasoned L.A. police officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). She heads to the kitchen and hovers over the sink--where she soon vomits. You'll have the same sick feeling in your stomach, because this thriller does a remarkable job of keeping you uncomfortable from the beginning.

Neil LaBute goes Hollywood with his latest feature, one of only two films in his impressive library (we'll ignore The Wicker Man!) that he had no hand in writing (Nurse Betty being the other). I'm a big fan of the director, best known for his dialogue-driven dramas about nasty people doing (and saying) terrible things to each other (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, The Shape of Things). So it's no surprise that Lakeview Terrace hinges on a dark side of human nature, one that slowly causes people to reach their boiling point. What is surprising is that the film ultimately becomes a formulaic thriller--in the end, it's just Unlawful Entry in Pacific Heights.

Interracial couple Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa have just moved into an affluent L.A. neighborhood, immediately catching the attention of next-door neighbor Abel. The stern veteran cop has a strict set of rules at work and at home, where he raises 15-year-old daughter Celia (Regine Nehy) and younger son Marcus (Jaishon Fisher). We see him at work and at home, and the genius of the screenplay by David Loughery and Howard Korder starts to surface: Abel is a racist, but he shows it in subtle ways with carefully chosen words.

He's also an instigator--relishing any chance he gets to pit people against each other--and a voyeur, frequently sneaking a peek at his neighbors. Abel, raised in the tough South Central section of Los Angeles, immediately clashes with Chicago-born and Berkley-educated Chris. During their tense introduction, he comments on the couple's relationship:

Abel: "Kind of like opposites attract?"
Chris: "Well, no, not exactly. We actually have a lot in common..."
Abel: "Yeah? Like what?"
Chris: "Uh, well..."
Abel: "Oh...rap music!"
Chris: "Well, I like it. She doesn't."
Abel: "Imagine that..."

His parting words ("You know, you can listen to that noise all night long. When you wake up in the morning? Still be white...") linger in Chris's ear. All of Abel's comments are accompanied by a smooth smile and a glint in his eye--and they slowly start to unsettle Chris, Lisa and us. When Abel catches his children watching the unaware couple skinny dipping, his crusade against the neighbors intensifies.

His weapons of choice include powerful security lights, which bathe over the couple's bedroom at night. That's just the beginning--the annoyances mount, and the couple begins to suspect Abel is responsible for them all. As the incidents increase in severity, Chris tries to calm things down ("This is getting a little out of hand; I need you to back off..."). But his macho pride gets in the way and he starts to fight passive-aggressive fire with his own juvenile antics.

Race becomes a larger part of the story as the film progresses, and we learn more about Abel's feelings. The stress causes cracks to surface in Chris and Lisa's relationship, which is already under the microscope of Lisa's disapproving father (Ron Glass). The two also start to exhibit some less-than-admirable traits that further complicate your feelings toward them (at one point, you kind of hate all three lead characters--LaBute never makes it easy on the viewer). And when the couple starts to realize the extent of Abel's scorn, their sense of hopelessness is transferred to the viewer: With Abel on the police force, will the cops actually help them?

If you've seen the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and George feel uneasy discussing the questionable ethnicity of Elaine's new boyfriend ("Should we be talking about this?"), you have an idea of the film's building tension--which makes you increasingly uneasy. It's a masterfully constructed tightrope that keeps you on edge, and all three lead performers turn in strong work--especially Jackson, who gives Ray Liotta a run for his money in the creepy cop category.

Abel is a complex curmudgeon, one who clearly loves his children and his work--so he's not as easy to hate as you'd like. Jackson invigorates the role with calculated precision and really gets under your skin; he demands your eyes and ears whenever he's on screen. And Wilson plays Chris with tempered frustration, convincingly shifting from polite platitudes to outright anger. Like William H. Macy's masterful turn in Fargo (which should have won an Oscar), you can feel his building annoyance.

But if you're expecting some grand statement or thought-provoking finish, don't get too anxious. Lakeview Terrace resorts to more clichés along the way--which is fine if you're just looking for a fun ride. The film keeps you tense using two main devices, with standard thriller techniques taking over at the end. That's when common sense goes out the window and characters make inexplicably stupid decisions for the sake of getting to Point B (my biggest gripe with the film).

Maybe the ambitious set-up led to my mild disappointment at the end. LaBute is known for his bitterly behaving characters, and he's already carved his mean-spirited signature on the industry. Here, he's playing with a milder version of his favorite themes, thus forcing us to focus more on his directing style. Lakeview Terrace isn't as diabolically delicious as most of his films, although it sets a tense tone with more care and skill than most thrillers. It's harder to see his unique imprint here--you get the sense that LaBute still has some skill sharpening to do if he wants to shine in films that step a little outside of his comfort zone. When he does, watch out. As it stands, Lakeview Terrace is an ambitious thriller that does a lot right, even if it becomes predictable at the end.


Presented in an anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer, Lakeview Terrace looks solid. We learn in the bonus features that the LaBute aimed for a specific visual style to drain the film of blues and greens and present a feeling of heat to accommodate the wildfire subplot. Sets like Abel's house were also based around yellow bases, with orange and red hues frequently used. The film has a hazy, sometimes gritty look to it, and is frequently bathed in grey and brown tints. It's sharp, and no major issues detract from it.

The 5.1 track (available in English, Spanish and Thai; a French surround option is also available) is very powerful, sometimes so strong that the dialogue may seem a tad faint compared to the audio effects (something I noticed more in the beginning; either I got used to it, or it got better). Rear channels get frequent attention (hello, helicopters!). Subtitles are supplied in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean and Thai.

An audio commentary (which has optional English, Spanish and Korean subtitles) with director Neil LaBute and actress Kerry Washington gets the ball rolling; it's chock full of tidbits on every part of the production. If you love the film, you're bound to glean some fun facts. Otherwise, it may be a little too dull. LaBute talks pretty much non-stop, and while he and Washington do a good job information-wise, it's a frequently boring listen.

Welcome to Lakeview Terrace (18:47) is a behind-the-scenes look at the film broken into three segments and featuring interviews with the cast and crew. "An Open House" provides a general overview of the film and its birth. LaBute explains that he was attracted to telling an L.A. story, and to the themes of race. He also admits that he relishes torturing characters who think they're in a solid relationship. Adds writer David Loughery: "I was really thrilled when I heard that Neil was gonna direct it this movie because the films that he makes, the plays that he writes are so excruciating to sit through--in a good way--because you're just so incredibly uncomfortable by the situations the he creates."

"Meet Your Neighbors" looks at the casting decisions and their attraction to the script (LaBute wanted the role of Chris to be the exact opposite of Abel, which he achieved perfectly). Most of it is spent with people praising each other, and the general consensus is that Washington is a breath of fresh air on set and in life. "Home Sweet Home" looks at the production design, art direction, action and stunt work (two things LaBute has little experience with), and also includes praise for the director and his process (he's a happy guy, really!). Overall, it's a decent look that could have been better--but could have been worse; it's the most interesting of all the bonus features here.

Also supplied are seven deleted scenes (totaling 13:42) in non-anamorphic widescreen with optional audio commentary by LaBute. Most of these are throwaway scenes ("Chris shops for curtains"!) that add nothing but minor character development, some sex and a cameo from LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart. But the final scene (presented in an R and PG-13 cut) is an out-of-left-field entry that would have ruined the film. The scene is so odd; I mistakenly thought it was a dream sequence. Says LaBute of the standoff between Lisa and Abel: "I think it tipped the scales in a strange way in terms of the picture. It was hard for me to believe her character doing what she did in this scene, and it's harder for me to believe what Abel doesn't do outside of this didn't make any sense and seemed rather gratuitous."

Trailers round out the package.

Final Thoughts:
Lakeview Terrace may not be a top-tier thriller, but it does many things right. It sets an unsettling mood with its story of a veteran black policeman who takes issue with his new neighbors, a young interracial couple. Director Neil LaBute frequently explores the dark side of human nature and people behaving badly; he sets up a compelling, thought-provoking story that keeps you on edge throughout. But the film resorts to genre clichés as it progresses, and doesn't pull the trigger on its intriguing premise. Still, it's a highly entertaining watch that features a remarkable turn by Samuel L. Jackson, and stands out just enough to come easily Recommended.

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