Bearing notable similarities to a well-publicized recent case in which a black Los Angeles police officer was accused of serially harassing neighbors — particularly interracially married ones — “Lakeview Terrace” delivers fairly tense and engrossing drama before succumbing to thriller convention. Samuel L. Jackson’s compelling turn as one kind of neighbor almost nobody wants should magnetize some critical favor and aud interest. But as a queasy examination of black/white dynamics, poised between character study and genre piece, director Neil LaBute’s latest is likely to score medium B.O. closer to that of 2002’s “Changing Lanes” than starry hit “Crash.”
Cop Abel Turner (Jackson), the widowed father of two children (Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher) kept on a tight disciplinary leash, is at first just mildly interested when moving vans pull up to the house next door. But his expression changes when a smooch identifies Chris (Patrick Wilson) as husband to Lisa (Kerry Washington) — and we quickly discern that for whatever reason, Abel does not look favorably on a white man and a black woman as spouses.
At first, Abel’s nastily instructive sense of humor (he introduces himself to Chris by feigning an armed carjacking) seem, just possibly, misconstrued. Kept awake each night by Abel’s security lights glaring into their bedroom window, the couple accept his sorry-I-forgot excuses. They don’t jump to conclusions when their air-conditioning system appears sabotaged.
But by the time someone breaks into their garage and slashes Chris’ tires, Abel has made it crystal-clear he wants them out of the neighborhood — and that running to his police breathren won’t likely help.
As relations deteriorate further between the two houses, the tension exacerbates already existing conflicts for Lisa and Chris, while Abel’s heavy-handed notions about meting out “justice” on the job get him in hot water — not for the first time, apparently. Meanwhile, another drought year brings wildfires ever closer to this upper-middle-class enclave.
The gradually escalating campaign of harassment, humiliations and payback sounds like something LaBute might have written himself. But this time, he’s just in the director’s seat for a screenplay by David Loughery (his first produced in 15 years) and Howard Korder from Loughery’s story. Notably, the pic was produced by Will Smith and his usual producing partner, James Lassiter.
If the dialogue and personalities here had aped the savagery of LaBute’s stage and early screen scripts (“In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors”), “Lakeview Terrace” might have tipped into caricature, or at least black-comedy terrain. But the handling on all sides — most crucially Jackson’s — is judiciously understated.
Until the end, that is. Coda could be worse, but nonetheless disappoints by bringing on mortal home-invasion peril like so many more formulaic thrillers. There’s also a fadeout affirmation of family values that feels knee-jerkingly obvious.
Abel is perhaps too mercurial on the written page for full credibility, decrying scanty female dress and rap music one minute, hosting strippers and a blaring house party the next. Still, Jackson’s astutely measured turn does a lot to muffle such doubts, at least until the viewer has time for hindsight scrutiny.
The pic was primarily shot in the affluent L.A. County burg of Walnut (whose population is, in fact, Asian-American by a slim majority). The widescreen presentation is clean and unfussy, recalling the minimalist aesthetic of LaBute’s first films without quite replicating their severity.
The excellent Washington ably fills out a character who’s less than fully sketched; less so Wilson, who’s both solid and indistinct, continuing his screen path of being very good in morally ambiguous roles (“Hard Candy,” “Little Children”) but bland in straight-arrow ones (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Evening”).
Among the supporting cast, only Ron Glass, as Lisa’s father, and Nehy, as the teenage daughter chafing under Abel’s rigid control, have the space to make a real impression in the tightly focused script.
Tech package is expert.