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If you wanted to see a face of shock, you should have seen me when I found out the new Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Lakeview Terrace was directed by Neil LaBute. When I think of the man I can only conjure images of the fantastic Shape of Things and In the Company of Men, and I haven’t even seen that one yet. To watch the trailer for this seemingly generic, racially motivated clash between neighbors just made me shake my head in shame. If it weren’t for the cast—or the free screening pass—I probably would have completely passed the film up, without a second thought. So there I was, sitting in a packed theatre, in a somewhat foul mood as security made us check our phones at the door, taking mine despite the fact it has no camera, waiting past the advertised start time. And then came Jackson onscreen, waking up from sleep, fixing a photo on the nightstand of he and his wife, slowly moving downstairs to meet his children. This is a parent of morals and intelligence, telling his son to remove a Kobe Bryant jersey because of what the man stands for and constantly correcting his daughter’s English so as not to have her sound like an ignorant girl from the streets. Watching him fold laundry on the couch next definitely woke me up; maybe I wasn’t going to get what I thought I would after all.

We are introduced to this man, Abel Turner, a cop and single father, trying to raise his children right. A man who worked double shifts and extra security jobs in order to move his family outside of the South Central neighborhood he grew up in. Sure he is rough around the edges, but he is a man of principle and it seems one that loves his children and would do anything to protect them. This buildup puts an entirely different spin on how he reacts to the moving in of Lisa and Chris Mattson, (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson respectively), an interracial couple buying their first house. Where the trailer just shows racial tension and disgust, the actual film shows someone trying his hardest to get along, but truthfully not being shown very much in the way of friendly neighbor from the newcomers. Between making love in their pool, within eyesight of Jackson’s house and the children looking out the window; Wilson throwing his cigarette butts into his yard so as to fool his wife; and a little hostility early on, one might see where Turner had a point. Is the man a little wrong in the head, though? For sure. His intimidating demeanor is not helped by the little tests he performs, including pretending to hold Wilson up in his car with a flashlight.

There really isn’t much to the story besides the escalating tensions mounting between the Mattsons and Turner. What at first can be construed as getting off on the wrong foot soon grows to borderline hatred with a touch of malicious intent. The threats fly and retribution is begun—you shine a flood light into my bedroom, I’ll do the same. Not too long after do the children become involved, acting out against their father wanting to get to know the neighbors while he tries to shield them away. While I did not anticipate the high jump Jackson’s games take towards the end, stopping any fun that might have been mixed with the not so subtle hints for the newly weds to move, going straight into thug territory, I was not surprised. The introduction of a character early on has no relevance if the story didn’t evolve to the point it does at the end and it’s convenient events like this that threaten to ruin what is working.

The story is very neatly and meticulously put together, but maybe a bit too well done. An obstacle looming heavy over the whole film is the forest fire slowly eating its way closer and closer to the street that the action takes place on. Having such a backdrop always in mind screams artifice and truthfully does take you out of the movie a bit. Yes, they are in California, but instead of introducing the fire so early on, (I believe it’s the first thing we hear on Jackson’s alarm clock radio), they could have made it a problem with subtlety. We know the dangers of the area and would believe a fire starting; we don’t need to be hand-held through the ordeal. Also, there is an underlying duplicity that crops up often. Jackson’s partner is living with decisions on whether to try for a promotion and move his family to a safer neighborhood, thus allowing us to find out Abel Turner’s similar predicament twenty years earlier. There is also the story of what happened to his wife, a tale whose explanation is revelatory to his feelings towards the Mattsons, I won’t say more, but you will see the mirroring for yourself when viewing. Heck, even Washington’s father is conveniently made to share similarities to Jackson, adding yet another level to Wilson’s pile of insecurities.

When you do look at Lakeview Terrace from afar, you will see some very intriguing instances of race, social status, and other barriers coming to the forefront as catalysts for the strained relationships cropping up. These are the kind of issues you expect LaBute to grasp ahold of and do something inventive and provocative. There are moments, don’t get me wrong, but in the end, this is a studio picture and I’m sure his hands were tied just enough to keep it all reined in. However, there is that edge to it, sometimes more pronounced than others, along with a great performance from Jackson, as well as the others. With a fitting conclusion and overall entertaining suspense, I’d say LaBute has found a happy medium between Hollywood-fare and his indie/stage sensibilities. I just hope he goes full indie next time, because that is where he truly excels.

Lakeview Terrace 6/10

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photography:
[1] Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner. Photo: Chuck Zlotnick
[2] (l-r) Patrick Wilson as Chris Mattson, Kerry Washington as Lisa Mattson. Photo: Chuck Zlotnick
© 2007 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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