Is it weird that so many fall movies are making racial charges into high concepts? Gary Fleder’s The Express could be just another college-football drama, except it’s about the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy. Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna could be a standard-issue World War II movie, except it’s about black American soldiers. Lance Hammer’s Ballast could be the gritty drama of a poor black family in the Mississippi River Delta, except it’s a strikingly naturalistic one–so underplayed that the lack of concept becomes the concept.
And then there’s Neil Labute’s Lakeview Terrace, which could be a prefab thriller about a bigot making trouble for the young, mixed-race couple moving into his genteel neighborhood, except the bigot is a cop, and black. What this means, yes, is that Lakeview Terrace is basically Guess Who meets Unlawful Entry.
Sure, putting it in pitch-meeting-ese may seem reductive, but then, combining the basic genetic material of the 2005 race-reversed Bernie Mac-Ashton Kutcher remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with the 1992 bad-cop drama (or bad cop-drama; either way) starring Kurt Russell and Ray Liotta is not an endeavor any sane person would describe as “too easy.”
Of course hardness suits Labute, who began in movies by adapting his own knifelike play In the Company of Men, and is known for moral pugnacity, which comes through even when the script isn’t his. (In Lakeview Terrace, it’s David Loughery and Howard Korder’s.) And of course, perhaps most importantly, the cop here — a tough LA.P.D. veteran and widower whose upper-middle-class homestead seems especially hard-won — is played by Samuel L. Jackson.
This man knows the meaning of service, of hardship, of heroism. He has been through some things. Like snakes on a plane. How will he handle a well-meaning, Prius-driving, Utne Reader-subscribing Wonder-bread-white Berkeley graduate with a black wife in suburbia?
Jackson’s Officer Abel Turner has been ruling the roost to which Malcolm X’s chickens came home, as a resented-disciplinarian single father of two kids, a brash and borderline brutal inner-city patrolman and an unsolicited one-man neighborhood watch. He’s not at all pleased when Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door, and especially not when they get busy in their pool, unwittingly within view of Abel’s kids.
It’s no surprise that hostilities escalate, although they do play out, at least at first, in surprising ways. The movie wants to challenge not just our received ideas about race but also about family, marriage and manhood. It allows for some unsettling depends-how-you-look-at-it complexity. Nagging questions linger about the true depths of Abel’s hostility and whether faux-magnanimous white liberal guilt will be Chris’ only defense. And, as it turns out, the progressive idyll of the Mattsons’ marriage was showing signs of strain to begin with.
So it’s too bad that Lakeview Terrace can’t keep from straitjacketing itself within a tired thriller format. Take the convenient removal of Abel’s kids from the equation; or the ruinous spelling out of his backstory; or the allegorically obvious California wildfire encroaching on the neighborhood in direct rhythmic proportion to the friction combusting within it. Take those things, or leave them; all that remains is a concept.