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By Don R. Lewis | September 21, 2008

To kickoff this review of “Lakeview Terrace,” I’m going to ask for a little reader participation. I’ll describe two types of Americans that you might find in anytown U.S.A., and you tell me the basic label that might apply to them, okay? Here goes…

The first type drives a hybrid car, went to U.C. Berkeley, drinks wine or microbrews, works at an organic food chain and embraces the differences in people. The second type of American drives a big gas guzzling truck, loves guns, embraces family values, drinks domestic beer and is so firmly rooted in their beliefs that anything differing from them needs to be squashed. So based on those examples, what types of labels for these people did you come up with?

Chances are you answered that person one would be a “liberal” or a “Democrat” and person two might be called a “conservative” or “a Republican.” At least, that’s how I would answer. Now looking back on how those people are described, what kind of person popped into your mind? Now, admit it. Both are men and both are probably white. At least that’s the way I saw it and I think director Neil LaBute feels the same way. However in “Lakeview Terrace,” the uptight conservative is a racist cop played by Samuel L. Jackson and the touchy-feely liberal is an interracial couple played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington. And the interesting role reversals are just the beginning of the provocative challenges and ideals put forth in this film. Well, put forth in the first hour or so before “Lakeview Terrace” dissolves into a statement about why most Hollywood movies are non-challenging flicks designed solely to have a tight beginning, middle and end with some bangs and booms along the way to sell tickets.

Still, even though it seriously drops the ball 3/4 of the way through, “Lakeview Terrace” is an intriguing and provocative thriller that manages to find more than one way to make you squirm in your seat. Chris and Lisa Mattson (Wilson and Washington) have bought and moved into a nice hillside home in an upscale suburban area in L.A. As looky-loos drive by their new and different neighbors, the man sharing the fence in the new backyard, veteran L.A.P.D. officer Able Turner (Jackson), acts like he doesn’t really care. He’s a hard-a*s, raising two kids on his own (which must be tough given the sizable chip he carries on his shoulder). But soon Turner takes a dislike to the Mattson’s, particularly the fact that Chris is white and Lisa is black. It’s admittedly quite striking the way Turner jumps right in with the creepy racist innuendo and makes his feelings known so overtly. But that’s all part of the plan and also part of many of LaBute’s films, especially the earlier (and much, much better) ones such as “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors.” It’s as if LaBute finds a societal scab and starts picking at it, all the while making you watch when you would normally turn away, say, if this were happening in real life. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work every time LaBute digs in and starts picking.

Able Turner is a grade-A prick no matter what his skin color or political frame of mind might be. He not only makes Chris feel bad for being white, he also does sneaky little things designed to get the couple arguing. Obviously being an interracial couple has its challenges and Turner, along with Lisa’s father Harold (Glass) make sure these feelings are brought into the light. Yet we quickly learn that the relationship is not only rife with it’s own everyday couple challenges, but the race issue has never really been discussed between the two and Turner’s sly intrusions and questions quickly bring the subject to a head. Turner not only makes life uncomfortable for Chris with his incessant barbs, he also makes living in the couple’s brand new house unbearable by having bright security lights shining on them all night long. There’s also numerous other annoying (and criminal… if you can catch him) things Turner does that build up throughout the movie but are impossible to truly prove he’s doing. After all, he is a cop. Why would he want to torture this poor couple? It’s all a part of Turner’s Machiavellian plan to harass those he doesn’t approve of in a secret attempt to deal with his own deep-seated issues of race and rage.

As I said, “Lakeview Terrace” is a pretty provocative film, that is until it implodes into standard formulaic Hollywood crap. Without giving too much away, at a certain point in the film, Turner explains why he is the way he is and it’s just plain unnecessary. Not only is the scene a lame attempt at character development, it’s a stupid reason played as if it’s a revelation. I didn’t need to know why he’s a racist a*****e, it was enough knowing that he is the way he is and the fun in the film comes from wondering what will he do next and how Chris will respond. Also, while you can definitely see things escalating, I wasn’t really bowled over by the final straw that leads up to the act three showdown between Chris and Able. It just felt a bit much and a little too on the nose.

Rounding out my complaints about the film is something I hate to say, but can’t help it. I don’t think there’s a more misogynistic director out there today than Neil LaBute. People get all over Brian DePalma for being “a woman hater,” but looking at his older films and now, “Lakeview Terrace,” it’s clear to see the Hitchcokian misogyny trophy is safely in the hands of LaBute. If not for her loveliness and sweet attitude, Lisa Mattson, as played by the sexy Kerry Washington, is fairly unlikable. She’s sneaky and self-serving and LaBute (or writers David Lughery and Howard Korder) make her pay for her insolence by basically beating the crap out of her throughout the entire movie. Not since Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels in “The Birds” has a free spirited woman been treated so poorly on film for daring to live her life the way she sees fit. “Lakeview Terrace” is ostensibly about a battle between two men with polar opposite points of view, but it’s the film’s only female character who takes the brunt of the physical violence. I don’t like putting negative labels on people, but when a label just jumps off the screen and bites you on the cheek, I think it deserves to be said.

Still, I found myself liking “Lakeview Terrace,” for the most part. In a society and political era where race relations are the elephant in the room, seeing the subject broached in a new and interesting way is pretty gutsy and cool. And I genuinely am a fan of LaBute, which seems odd to say after slapping the misogynist label on him. I love the way he manages to both pull the viewer in and intrigue them with despicable characters, but he uses these people to sort of shine a light back on ourselves. What would we do in these situations? What are our thoughts really about touchy subjects like race and power? And like so many great filmmakers before him have asked, why is ok to broach these prickly subjects onscreen if we can’t face them in life?

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