Lakeview Terrace

Absent provocateur
★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Neil LaBute
Starring: 
Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington
The Setup: 
Multi-ethnic couple move next door to black cop who don't like no multi-ethnic couples.
Discussion: 

The trailer for this was one of those things where you sit there totally uninterested until you see who the director is, then you sit up and say "WHAT?!" This looked like a totally tepid thriller until I saw it was directed [but not written] by Neil LaBute. He is a playwright who started making films, beginning with the excellent In the Company of Men, and continuing up to his remake of The Wicker Man, which was, to put it mildly, not embraced by the public. Anyway, his reason for being seems to be to thrust thorny issues in our faces, particularly those relating to the simmering hostilities just below our daily lives, so when he's going to make a provocative movie about racial tension, I want to know what he has to say!

Which, in this case, makes me the chump.

We open with our credits, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson of Little Children, and Kerry Washington. We see that there's a Pinkett in the cast and this alerts us to look out for the presence of co-producer Will Smith. And there he is indeed. Hmm, maybe this won't be THAT provocative.

We next see Jackson as Abel Turner [Abel? Why, what a neutral name!] who wakes alone and unhappy, the bedside picture of his wife having been put face-down. He goes downstairs and has breakfast with his two kids, a young teen daughter Celia and younger son Marcus. His son wants to wear a basketball jersey, but Abel won't let him support that team, and instead forces him to wear a jersey for a team he doesn't like, but his father approves of. Abel then turns his attention to Celia, who has committed the sin of listening to her iPod at the table. On her way out to school, Celia remarks that she wants to "change her name" because her dad has "so many rules."

Okay, so within the first five minutes the whole question of who is right or wrong between Abel and his soon-to-arrive neighbors has been answered, because the movie is telling us quite unevivocally that Abel IS the bad guy. When even your kids hate you, and want to secede from the family, you are the bad guy. So... where does this movie have left to go?

Abel sees this couple moving in next door. He watches a young black woman with an older black man in a suit, assuming that they're the couple, and that Patrick Wilson as Chris, unloading the truck, is the moving guy. He is visibly shocked when he realizes that Chris and Lisa [the woman] are the couple, and the older guy is her father.

But wait, maybe you weren't absolutely sure that Abel is the bad guy? That HE is the real racist here? If so, your questions will be answered when he arrests a white guy and calls him a racial mutt, saying he's not even on the same evolutionary branch as Abel. Later that night Chris sits in his car secretly smoking [he told his wife he quit] and listening to hip-hop when Abel pretends to hold a gun to his head. They talk, and Abel draws out that Chris is from Chicago [the white midwest], and Lisa from Oakland [the hood], and assumes it's sort of an "opposites attract" kind of thing. He also lets on that he is police officer and "unofficially" patrols the neighborhood, enforcing his rules on the community--who remain invisible throughout the movie, save one scene--and he makes it fairly clear that he does not approve of Chris and Lisa being together. Soon there is a good shot of Abel looking longingly at Lisa inside the house, his lonliness visible on his face.

Meanwhile, little tit-for-tat things are going on. Abel directs massive floodlights right into Chris and Lisa's bedroom. He comes over and damages their air conditioning unit [which, from the fans we see the rest of the film, I guess they never have repaired?]. He busts Chris for smoking, right in front of Lisa. He breaks into their garage and slashes their tires. And he's protected through all of this because he's a police officer. We also find out in here that Lisa's father also does not at all like the idea of her with a white man.

Okay, still unsure whether Abel is the bad guy or not? Now we have a scene in which a perp is freaking and holding a gun on his wife and child, and Abel gets him cornered alone outside and holds a shotgun right under his chin, telling him he needs to "be a man and take care of that baby." Later in the film, in case you're STILL unsure at that point whether Abel is the wrong one here, this guy brings police brutality charges against Abel. OH, and by the by, Lakeview Terrace is the name of the street on which Rodney King was assaulted, a case referenced a few times in the script. Because, you see, referencing something in passing is now the same thing as making a statement about it.

SPOILERS > > >
Well, as couples in these situations must in order to enable plot machinations, Chris and Lisa have terrible communication, and twist each other's words in arguments. There's a lot of hugger-mugger around whether Chris and Lisa are going to have a baby--she wants one, he's not ready--and thematic stuff about whether Chris, with his weak Caucasian spunk, can sire one. Then it turns out she IS pregnant. Then Chris realizes she tricked him and stopped taking her pills. And they have more plot-enabling awful communication about it.

There's this whole thing about a bachelor party I won't even go into, then Chris and Abel have another one-on-one talk [by now it's just: Provocation, Confrontation, One-on-one talk, Repeat] where Abel confesses that his wife was having an affair with a white man before she died, and this just burns him up.

This leads into the finale in which the other residents of the neighborhood, who have not even been seen in so much as passing cars, SUDDENLY show up and have a party. It's so jarring [and all the houses look so alike] it took me a while to figure out who was where and why. Anyway, while this is going on, Abel has hired the white thug from the beginning to come in and trash Chris and Lisa's house. BUT then Lisa decides to go home. And the guy attacks her. But Chris and Abel hear the alarm, and run to the house. Chris attends to Lisa while Abel inappropriately shoots the thug in the pool, to cover his tracks. BUT he can't find the thug's cell phone, which would prove that he and Abel were in cahoots. I have to say this isn't a bad twist.

So now Abel is shitting a brick, and breaks into their house to find that phone. But the couple come home, blah, blah, and Chris finds the phone. And, rather than simply go to the police, like anyone would do, he dials the last number and, oops, Abel picks up. Yah, yah, confrontation, confrontation, and Abel is running around shooting at everyone. The police come, and Chris has a gun held on Abel while the police are behind him. Abel starts pulling the whole trusted police act, and Chris, like a fool [he HAS the incriminating cell phone in his possession] keeps the gun on Abel. So Chris thinks quick and provokes Abel about his wife, which gets Abel to shoot--right in front of all the police--who then shoot him dead. You must realize that stalkers in films like this CAN'T just go to jail, they MUST DIE. Chris demonstrates once again that innocent people can only ever be shot harmlessly in the shoulder. He accepts that they're going to have a baby [he has finally accepted his manhood!] and that's it.
< < < SPOILERS END

What a disappointment. It's too bad because it has such a loaded premise and Jackson gives such a good performance [he's great at wringing menace out of "friendly" banter, and also switches well into moments of vulnerability], but this just runs away from anything really provocative at every turn. It's really just a straight-ahead "_____-from-hell" thriller with a sprinkling of "racial issue" dust, but not much more than that. Roger Ebert, in his review, says that we are "meant" to reverse the races and imagine what we would think of this situation if the cop next door were white and the couple black. Okay, first of all I don't know what's making him think we are meant to look at it that way, and even if we did, the cop is portrayed as such a villain from literally the opening scene, there would still be no ambiguity. Ugh. You'd have to be pretty sheltered [or just plain dumb] to find this controversial or provocative.

Many of the reviews on the IMDb [I was reading a lot of reviews trying to figure out if anyone out there liked this] mention that things are going okay up until the total crap ending, which kind of got my hopes up that maybe there was a horrible re-shot ending--and maybe the original ending on the DVD--but no, this is it, the original ending, and it's no worse than anything else that's come before. Which is to say it's exactly as cruddy and predictable as the preceding movie would have led you to believe. Yeah, let's just do our best to pretend this whole thing never happened.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn't bother.