Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) has very definite ideas about how things should be. His children, an adolescent daughter and a son a bit younger, must use proper grammar at all times, and there are rules about who and who can’t be a role model. His new neighbors, she’s black, he’s white, do not fit into Abel’s world view of the proper example for those kids and Abel is not a man to be trifled with. That’s the meta-story of LAKEVIEW TERRACE, a film about human relationships, underlying motivations, and the way race becomes the issue when there are other problems in play.
The she is Lisa (Kerry Washington), the he is Chris (Patrick Wilson), and they are a couple madly in love and gamely dealing with the ups and downs of making a life together, living far from family, and when to start making babies. Abel, the angry and sociopathic black man next door makes things far more complicated. Who is projecting what resentment where? Chris about Lisa’s father and his less than blissful relationship with his son-in-law? Lisa about leaving Oakland for La La Land? Both of them about Abel’s up-front dislike of a mixed-marriage on his doorstep or is his dislike of a mixed-marriage that consummates their connubials in the backyard pool and unwittingly in full sight of his kids? And how much of any of this has anything to do with race and how much of it is using race as a convenient peg? The assumptions the audience projects are as much a part of the film as the action on the screen, and that can make for some uncomfortable, but highly enlightening moments. It’s the effect of dealing with race honestly.
It starts badly, with Abel leaving a mock ticket on Chris’ car advising him to observe the traffic laws when Chris parks a few inches too close to Abel’s driveway. It moves on to deliberately provocative conversations that end with Abel’s pithy observation that even though Chris might listen to rap music all night long, he will still wake up white the next morning.
The confrontations with Abel, most of Abel’s making, escalate from security lights flooding Lisa and Chris’ bedroom, to petty vandalism, to loud partying and worse. A situation made worse because Abel, an L.A. cop with the force with him, replying to any and all demands for him to stop with the question “Or what?” delivered with a look of such malice that mere murder seems the least consequence of crossing him. Chris and Lisa, decent and not sociopathic, are at a loss, terrorized in their own home and helpless to do anything about it as Abel stays just the right side of the law, and even when he steps over, with just enough wiggle room to keep the couple from being able to make a complaint. The loud party is populated by other policemen, for example.
The direction by Neil LaBute is spare and effective. The clever use of identical sets for each home emphasizes the normality of the suburbs, the banality even, while in stark contrast to what is actually going on in this one widowered man’s home as the emotional violence in it between him and daughter reaches a breaking point, and the tension across the back fence. Jackson is simply terrifying. The smile as he verbally pummels Chris is the stuff of nightmares. Wilson, on the receiving end, is the perfect counterpoint, a decent guy completely unequipped to deal with this sort of behavior, resentful, wary, but still eager to smooth things out as much as possible, even after an unfortunate incident involving a chain saw. He may be the good guy of the piece, but he is wonderfully tortured by his own better nature in the face of pure evil.
LAKEVIEW TERRACE takes the form of a conventional thriller, and one that is very well constructed, but it is much more than that. By confronting racial issues of many varieties head-on and without flinching, it becomes an explosive work of social commentary that is as incendiary as the wildfires that threaten the eponymous neighborhood. This is a sophisticated and very clever bit of storytelling, expertly acted, and told with riveting clarity.