Friday, October 03, 2008

410 - Lakeview Terrace review

Neil LaBute’s “Lakeview Terrace” is an incendiary polemic about evil and racism packaged as a thriller. It generates tension not so much because of the unpleasant events that occur, but because they happen throughout a deeply thoughtful and intelligent story populated by layered, believable characters.

It stars Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner, a Los Angeles cop and single father living in an upscale neighborhood. Don’t believe the adverts that proclaim he’s a “good cop;” Abel is an evil man, a sadist who happens to be in a position of power that allows him to brutalize others. The performance, nuanced and vicious, is deserving of an Oscar nomination.

When recently married Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington) move in next door, Abel snaps. Chris is white, Lisa is black. Abel is an unrepentant racist who is repulsed at the happy interracial couple, and is perhaps jealous as well. By the time the first night is over, Abel has initiated a campaign of harassment and intimidation that will end poorly for all concerned.

Chris is a reasonable man whose options are quickly whittled down for him. The film spares us one of those scenes where the victim hopelessly complains to the police about one of their own only to be ignored. Chris might be an upper-class yuppie, but he has seen enough Dateline specials to know that the law isn’t on his side.

I can’t recall a film where a white protagonist was the victim of a racist black antagonist. Chris himself seems unwilling to believe it, patiently rationalizing the attacks until Abel’s demeanor becomes ferociously candid. His marriage with Lisa becomes strained as the pressure builds, while Abel’s own brutality has repercussions that worsen an already bad scenario.

Abel is the sort of cop who justifies his abuses by claiming that he’s just getting the job done. He seemingly loves his children, but also uses them to vent his totalitarian impulses. His racism is unmistakable and deeply unsettling, his own ethnicity making the scenario infinitely more interesting. We’ve seen countless films that demonstrate racism from white men, but few from the other side. It forces us to consider that while all racists might not be evil, it’s easy to imagine that all evil people are racist. It’s an outlook conducive to the misanthropic and the cruel.

Chris is the sort who considers himself progressive and is proud of it, but has never had to consider that a tolerant worldview can mean little when you're confronted with those with contempt for it and the means to express it. Some critics have commented that Chris misses the opportunity to defuse the situation. I think they're wrong. Abel is a sadist, looking to deal with his demons by torturing others. He claims to be upset with some minor transgressions of Chris and Lisa’s, but that’s really inconsequential. An excuse to harass others is nice, but if Able wasn’t provided with one, he could do without.

“Lakeview Terrace” closes with a showdown typical of thrillers, with blows exchanged and guns drawn. But even as I knew the rules, I didn’t think of them, because the film had earned the conclusion with such a compelling narrative, pitch-perfect performances, and insight into the conflicts we’re forced to deal with when we share space with one another.

4.5 out of 5


Toto said...

Good review. I think critics were so convinced this would be awful (I was pretty sure it would be, too) that they reviewed the film they expected to see, not what unspooled in front of them.

The racial angle is fascinating, new and well drawn.

James said...

Thanks, Christian! I was really happy with how this one turned out.

I was surprised that it scored so low with critics. What I saw was a helluva drama about racial conflict and police abuse wrapped in a thriller. The film had the balls to challenge all sorts of orthodoxy, I think.

Hopefully, this will get some due down the road.