Review: Don't Trust the Police on Lakeview Terrace

Everything in Lakeview Terrace is in black and white, and I'm not just referring to the film's racial overtones. The bad guy, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), is an argumentative bully who drives a heavy-duty pickup truck with a yellow ribbon magnet on the back, doesn't believe in global warming, and kneels next to his bed in prayer every morning. His new neighbor, Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson), is non-confrontational, jogs every morning, drives a Prius, and subscribes to the Utne Reader.

But this isn't a Red State vs. Blue State drama, nor is it even a racial drama (as much as it likes to pretend it is). It's really just a suburban thriller about a cop who hides behind his badge to harass his neighbors -- making it a loose rip-off of the Kurt Russell/Ray Liotta flick Unlawful Entry, too.

Chris Mattson, who is white, is married to Lisa (Kerry Washington), who is black. They have just moved to an upper-middle-class Los Angeles cul-de-sac, where their next-door neighbor is Abel Turner, a black man who does not approve of interracial couplings. In fact, Abel is obsessed with race in general, bringing it up at inappropriate and irrelevant times and making those around him uncomfortable. A widower, he has two teenage children who find his strict law-and-order attitude confining. He aggressively corrects their grammar and diction -- no Ebonics allowed in the Turner house.

Abel makes life difficult for the Mattsons immediately. He fixes his outdoor motion-sensor lights directly on their bedroom window. He pretends to rob Chris at gunpoint as a "friendly" way of teaching him about safety, then, noting the rap music playing on Chris' stereo, says, "You can listen to that noise all you want, but when you wake up in the morning, you'll still be white." Soon, Abel's comments are more directly threatening and disapproving, though still not quite to the point where you can call the police. And even then, what good will that do? Abel IS the police.

There are some problems with that theory, especially in Los Angeles, where there are a million different precincts and plenty of higher-ups eager to stamp out any perception of wrongdoing on the part of their men in blue. The movie's assertion that Abel's badge means all his fellow cops will automatically stick up for him is probably true only among his closest law-enforcement friends. People in other precincts -- and Abel does not live in the same precinct where he works -- would have no problem busting an arrogant cop who used his status to harass civilians.

But fine: I'll buy the premise that the Mattsons have no recourse in dealing with Abel's aggression, especially since most of what he does, at least at first, is either not technically illegal or else hard to prove. The larger problem is that as a character, Abel Turner isn't believable. For a while he's simply an unmotivated psychopath, a man who blindly, rabidly hates interracial marriages. The randomness of that bothered me, right up until the part where the movie explains why he has those strong opinions -- and then I was bothered by the too-simple, Psych 101 explanation. It reminded me of one of Jack Handey's best "Deep Thoughts": "To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad."

The film was directed by Neil LaBute, his seventh theatrical feature but only the second one (after Nurse Betty) that he did not write himself. (It was written by David Loughery and Howard Korder, each with a few prior credits but nothing noteworthy.) It's apparent that LaBute tried to invest the story with his usual fascinations -- lies, awkward relationships, hidden emotional agendas -- but nearly every attempt to create subtlety (like having Chris pestered by another black man, his father-in-law) is outweighed by the story's overall bluntness. No matter how much the film wants to be an examination of race relations, it's really just a medium-grade potboiler, watchable but unmemorable.

Grade: C+

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Eric D. Snider's website killed the clown that killed Jack Handey's dad.