Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Neil LaBute directs this intense thriller about suburban paranoia.
It all starts with those damn security lights. The kind that people in the suburbs put on their house that are timed to come on around sunset. Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) is one of those people. He tells his new neighbor Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) that he needs them because of kids that cause trouble in the neighborhood but the real reason is that Abel is the kind of guy that wants everyone to know he’s home, and that he’s watching.
Chris just moved into Abel’s upscale Los Angeles neighborhood with his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington) even though her lawyer father Harold (Ron Glass) wanted them to stay in Oakland. Chris is white and Lisa is black and that may also play into her father’s disapproval. It certainly plays into Abel’s disapproval and it doesn’t take long for him to let Chris know how he feels. When Chris attempts to talk to him about those bright lights that shine into his bedroom window at night, Abel says “Yeah, I guess I can see how that might be annoying.” What he doesn’t say is that he’ll turn them off anytime soon. When Chris asks him a second time, Abel finds a way of apologizing without really apologizing, and once again he never says he’ll take care of the situation.
The lights are only the beginning of Chris’ woes however as Abel seems hell bent on making his new life so miserable that Chris will want to sell the house. Strange things begin to happen such as Chris’ air conditioning unit being disconnected, the tires on his car slashed, and so on and so forth. What I haven’t yet mentioned in that Abel is a cop with the L.A.P.D. but he mentions it every chance he gets. Chris however isn’t easily intimidated and he decides to fight back by installing his own security lights that shine into Abel’s bedroom. You can sense that this isn’t going to get any better, can’t you?
Lakeview Terrace is directed by Neil LaBute, who with films such as In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, has never shied away from controversial issues involving sex, gender and now race. To call Abel a racist, however, isn’t accurate, as he seems to get along fine with his Latino partner, and Asian neighbor. However when it comes to Chris and Lisa’s marriage he certainly comes across as a racist. When he hears Chris listening to rap music he tells him, “No matter how much you listen to that stuff you’ll still wake up white.”
The growing tension between Chris and Abel is the main focus of the film and it makes for some incredibly tense moments. Abel isn’t a stupid man but his inner rage makes him do some stupid things. We see what he’s capable of but we never know how far he’ll really go. There is one scene in a local bar where Abel at first seems to be trying to make nice with Chris but soon enough he’s back to his old self telling Chris how white guys, “want everything.” We also see where Abel’s rage may be coming from and how his racism may not be as deep seeded as we previously thought. When Chris finally tells Abel what he can do with his opinions, Abel does something that not only crosses the line but also causes things to spiral out of control.
Samuel L. Jackson is the model of passive aggressive behavior as Abel. With a calm intensity Jackson is able to bring his characters pent up anger into every scene, his Abel is a ticking time bomb and he may not even know it himself. This palpable tension is why Lakeview Terrace is such an effective film, and director LaBute deserves much of the credit as well. His view of suburbia is obviously short of flattering and while things get increasingly heated between Abel and Chris, it isn’t a coincidence that the temperature itself seems to be rising and the Southern California wildfires are headed straight for their neighborhood. The subtle yet effective production design consists of homes where fences and window blinds are all too easy to peer through and where one neighbor’s window peers directly into another’s backyard.
In a way Abel may stand for something more than just an angry guy who likes spying on his neighbors, he can also be representing our current government who with their high tech spying can decide in a moment’s notice if someone belongs or not. The problem is that like Abel they may very well have a skewed vision as to what is normal or acceptable. While the ending of Lakeview Terrace may be as predictable as it is inevitable, up until this point the film is truly a taut modern day suburban nightmare.