It took Lakeview Terrace to remind me, in retrospect, that we didn’t know how good we had it in the early 1990s. The Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall had crumbled, leaving post-Cold War America without a real international threat; terrorism was a vague concept involving bad things that happened somewhere else. Yet if you were to judge by the movies, we were all buckets of free-floating anxiety convinced that everyone around us would stab us in the neck with a letter opener if we looked at them sideways.
Yes, it was the golden age of the “fill-in-the-blank from hell” thriller—that time when your babysitter (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), your roommate (Single White Female), your co-worker (The Temp), the girl next door (The Crush) or your kid’s new stepparent (Domestic Disturbance) was a psycho-in-waiting. Lakeview Terrace appears in an age when paranoia seems just a bit more justified, and you’d think that there would be room to re-explore the genre in light of an edgier age. Instead, we get more or less what we would have gotten 18 years ago: middling melodrama too concerned with providing visceral kicks to uncover anything truly psychologically insightful.
Our unsuspecting victims: Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington), a biracial couple relocating from Northern California to a Los Angeles suburb during a hot summer. Their from-hell adversary: Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), their next-door neighbor and also an L.A.P.D. beat cop. It turns out Abel isn’t too fond of the idea of a white man and a black woman together, and he has his own special way of demonstrating his antipathy: shining annoying security lamps through their windows, wrecking their air conditioning and so on, while basically daring the Mattsons to call in local law enforcement and take their word over his.
The “cop from hell” isn’t exactly a new variation on the theme; Ray Liotta filled the role in Unlawful Entry back in the heyday. Screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder do make an effort at turning Abel into a complex character rather than a bogeyman, and for a while they even succeed. Abel’s rigid expectations—manifested in everything from his parenting to his treatment of a black man suspected of domestic violence—make his motivations intriguing, and there’s a bracing tension as the no-nonsense black cop challenges Chris’s friends on their liberal perspectives at a housewarming party. Jackson dials down his recent high-volume tendencies to play one of those guys who can justify anything to himself in the name of the “greater good” he thinks he’s trying to accomplish, even if he’s really just feeding his own demons.
But there’s something blurry about Lakeview Terrace, and it’s not just because of the smoke drifting in from the metaphorically significant brush fire chewing its way through the film’s SoCal hillsides. It seems that the script wants to probe the underlying racial tension not just between Abel and Chris, but also between Chris and Lisa, the elephant in the room of their mixed-race marriage. And it might have resonated, had the exchanges themselves felt like more than typical marital squabbling, or if Patrick Wilson could convey more than middle-class pique. Like Crash—a film to which this one seems inescapably connected—it feels mostly self-congratulatory about pointing out that, yes, we do still live in a country where we can’t always “just get along.”
Eventually, however, even that degree of subtext begins to feel like too much for director Neil LaBute. Doing another piece of Hollywood will-direct-for-food work (like 2000’s Nurse Betty), LaBute leaves behind all of the incendiary skill he brings to his own material (1997’s In the Company of Men, 2003’s The Shape of Things). The film degenerates into a rote pattern of escalating confrontations, inevitably involving a knockdown drag-out between Abel and Chris. As is the case with Lakeview Terrace’s long-ago cousins in the “from hell” sub-genre, the antagonist gets less interesting—and less believable—the crazier his behavior gets, until it’s just a matter of waiting for the last shot to be fired or the last punch to be thrown. Lakeview Terrace doesn’t really tell us anything about how much the world has changed over the past 15 years—only about how much screenwriting has stayed the same.