Neil LaBute’s acerbic exploration of the war between men and women, which extended from 1997 (“In the Company of Men”) all the way down to his abortive 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man” (with a detour in the romantic “Possession”) is shelved in favor of a tale premised on another fundamental rift—one based on race rather than gender—in the flawed but intriguing thriller “Lakeview Terrace.” On the surface this is just a cat-and-mouse tale about a young married couple harassed, at first psychologically but with increasing physical violence, by a cop who becomes their next-door neighbor when they move into their so-called starter home in a Los Angeles cul-de-sac. But it’s not simply a replay of a picture like Jonathan Kaplan’s “Illegal Entry” (1992). It adds a provocative element by making the couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), biracial, and their tormentor a snide, volatile African-American played with all the surface charm and underlying hostility he can muster by Samuel L. Jackson. And that, of course, is quite a lot.
For much of the running-time, Jackson’s singular presence, LaBute’s talent for capturing smoldering intensity in dialogue sequences, and some cleverly suggestive writing by David Loughery and Howard Korder keep the picture working at a low boil. The sudden explosions of violence that mark the actions of Jackson’s L.A. officer Abel Turner not only toward perps like Damon Richards (Caleeb Pinkett), whom he faces down in an exciting action scene but who then brings an official complaint against him, but even toward his own kids (Regine Nehy and Jaishon Fisher, the former especially good at expressing budding sexuality) are well caught. And in his early, more ambiguous confrontations with Wilson’s bland grocery-store exec, Jackson conveys a real sense of subdued menace.
Always adding punch to the mix is the racial subtext, which most Hollywood movies would shy away from portraying in quite this light. Turner is clearly suppressing, from his very first glimpses of the couple that’s moved in next door, deep resentment over the fact that it’s a white man and a black woman. And, at a time when the effect of the frequent absence of fathers from African-American households is a controversial topic, it takes some courage to portray this man, a widower who lives for his kids, as so stern and puritanical a figure—indeed a frightening one. When one adds the fact that it’s inevitable, given Jackson’s natural charisma, that Turner is in many ways an attractive figure, at least insofar as his strength and efficiency go, the mixture of positive and negative is a powerful one.
On the other hand, Wilson makes too mild an opponent for so formidable a foe; he finds it hard to hold his own in the one-on-one scenes with him, pretty much fading into the background, and his stance of milquetoast liberalism is much too easy a target. Washington is a stronger presence, though even she recedes in Jackson’s shadow. Ron Glass is more imposing as Lisa’s father (of course, he doesn’t have to face off against Jackson), and Jay Hernandez actually holds his own as Turner’s ambitious partner.
Where “Lakeview Terrace” really falls down, though, is in succumbing to hoary thriller convention in the last act. When the increasingly unhinged policeman, harried on the job as well as at home, decides to deal with the Mattsons more decisively, the script goes off the rails. A speech in which Turner finally declares the reason behind his antipathy toward Chris and Lisa makes things much too pat. The decisive showdown between Abel and Chris is little more than a sop to the worst expectations of the audience (and the revelation that sets it, involving a lost phone, off isn’t very astutely managed). And the use of an oncoming fire as a metaphor for the escalation of tension and danger on the home front is crushingly obvious.
Still, there’s more to “Lakeview Tarrace” than a run-of-the-mill chiller, and, thanks largely to Jackson and LaBute, more to savor even when it begins to fall apart. Technically, too, it’s a slick piece, with the gritty sequences of Turner’s on-the-job tours contrasted nicely with the more handsome ones set in the burbs, thanks to Rogier Stoffers’ solid cinematography and equally reliable production design (Bruton Jones) and art direction (Tom T. Taylor and Paul Sonski). But the score by Mychael and Jeff Danna doesn’t add much.
So while the movie is basically a potboiler, the brew that it keeps simmering is more potent than most. And after “Wicker Man,” it represents at least a modest return to form for the talented LaBute. Now, though, he should probably get back to the word processor and write something original to direct.